It was already hot by the time mid-morning rolled around the Florida Panhandle. Light sparkled off the surface of Joe’s Bayou, reflecting a bright blue sky clear of clouds. My co-workers and I waited at the edge of the water, 12 plastic tubs of soil sitting next to us. It was time to plant a living shoreline.
We heard the school bus before we saw the bright yellow form making its way down a quiet Destin street toward where we stood in Mattie Kelly Park. Inside were dozens of Boys and Girls Club kids, ready for their field experience with Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) staff — including me! I had never been part of a field trip as an adult “in charge” and I had no idea what to expect.
I have clear memories of field trips I took as a kid, especially any with time spent outdoors. In fourth grade my class in California went on an overnight excursion near Los Angeles. I don’t remember exactly where we were, but I recall barreling up a small mountain slope behind the counselor, pausing and waiting for my friends to catch up. He complimented me on my quick ascent, and I felt a unique sense of pride. I’m no longer considered a fast hiker (pretty much the opposite), but I experience the same sense of accomplishment upon reaching a trail’s summit. I remember sitting beneath a pine tree as part of a sixth grade class in Maine, where we all spent an entire week on the edge of Damariscotta Lake. I wrote my observations in a notebook, including any details I could think of about my surroundings, from the spicy smell of the trees, to the humidity of a late summer day, to the beautiful reflections on the water nearby. As this article demonstrates, I fell in love with nature writing.
Field trips had a big impact on me, as they do with most students who are lucky enough to experience them. In a paper summarizing the importance of field trips for the International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, authors Marc Behrendt and Teresa Franklin write that “Students who directly participate during a field experience generate a more positive attitude about the subject.” Many field trips highlight experiential learning, which is defined as “authentic, first-hand, sensory-based learning.” When experiential learning is done well, students develop a curiosity and interest in the subject at hand, and the trip can even improve their social skills.
All this ran through my mind as the kids began to get off the bus. “Get off” is probably a boring way to describe how they decided to disembark. The students literally leapt from the bottom step to the paved ground — one even spun in a complete circle on his way down. They had a lot of energy.
The kids were split up into three groups. The first would be with me, our Restoration Coordinator Rachel Gwin, and the Director of AmeriCorps’ Northwest Florida Stewards Laurie Von Kaenel. Each participant had been given his or her very own smooth cordgrass plant in a black plastic pot. Green and brown fronds blew slightly in the wind, ready to be planted in their new home along the Mattie Kelly Park shoreline.
This segment of the field trip is the summer adaptation of Grasses in Classes, a school program that gives students a direct role the restoration of Choctawhatchee Bay. In partnership with AmeriCorps and with partial funding from the USFWS Coastal Program, Boeing Corporation and National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, CBA provides teachers in Okaloosa and Walton Counties the equipment and materials required to grow shoreline grasses at their schools.
Further subdivided into clusters of five, the Boys and Girls Club members knelt on the ground around a bin of soil and a burlap sack with five carefully cut holes. The directions were simple: place each smooth cordgrass plant into the bag, pulling the grass pieces out through the holes and filling the remaining space with dirt. When the bags had been filled, the adults of the group used a cord to tie them closed, and the kids lifted the bags and walked together to the bank to place them carefully along the shore.
The directions may have been simple, but accomplishing each step turned out to be difficult. My first group was full of kindergarten students and first-graders, and there were some dexterity issues as we tried to pull the grasses through the burlap holes. They remained interested but not always in the actual planting preparation, and the Boys and Girls Club chaperones would have to call them back from examining a toad or throwing rocks into the water. As we worked, we talked about what kinds of creatures would live in these grasses, like sheepshead, redfish, crabs and shrimps. They liked thinking about the critters, and we found soon ourselves in deep conversation about all the fish species we liked to eat.
Their comfort level with the outdoors ranged from squeamish to mesmerized. One female duo didn’t want to get their hands soiled, another girl told me emphatically how much she loved mud and playing in the dirt. One boy told me he was going to come back and visit his plant, another was very helpful getting the burlap bag ready with cordgrass but then wanted desperately to wash his hands. Most already knew we were planting cordgrass, and they used words like “estuary” and “living shoreline” with more ease than many grownups I know.
In addition to my station, there were two other activities for the kids to rotate through. Alison McDowell, Director of CBA, had waded in the shallows before the students arrived to collect aquatic species for a touch tank. Crabs of all shapes and sizes walked the clear plastic bottom, and she had found different small fishes that swam in sharp bursts back and forth between the container walls. The Boys and Girls Club members could not only see the marine life that calls Choctawhatchee Bay home, they could also gently touch them to their hearts’ content.
“Living here in the Choctawhatchee watershed, there are so many ways to experience the wonders of nature and our waterways,” McDowell explains. “The challenge is in making sure that these outdoor opportunities and the learning rewards that come along with them are available to every child in Okaloosa and Walton Counties. This partnership with Boys and Girls Club brings us closer to that goal.”
Finally, the youngsters gathered in a large circle to play nature games with Brittany Tate, CBA’s Education Coordinator and architect of this summer version of the Grasses in Classes program. “My favorite aspect of the program is watching the kids get off the school bus at the end of the year screaming words like ‘Choctawhatchee Bay,’ ‘Spartina alterniflora’ (the scientific name for smooth cordgrass) and ‘stormwater runoff’ with excitement and accuracy,” Tate says.
Throughout the year, the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance strives to provide first-hand restoration experiences. In Dunes in Schools, staff educate middle school students about the rare dune lake and barrier island ecosystems that exist in their local environment. Collaborating with school districts, middle school classrooms are given the materials and supplies needed to grow sea oats. After the participating middle schools complete the Dunes in Schools curriculum, students travel to a local dune lake to plant their mature sea oats.
Upon finishing the program, Kayley, a sixth grade student at Freeport Middle School, wrote: “I really am thankful that you gave me a good learning experience and how well you did it!! My absolute favorite part was planting sea oats because it made me feel like I was really helping the environment. I had so much fun and I learned a lot!”
In a review of field trip literature, authors Jennifer DeWitt and Martin Storksdieck conclude that field trips “serve best as opportunities for exploration, discovery, first-hand and original experiences.” I couldn’t agree more, both from my experiences as a kid and now helping out in CBA’s education programs. These students are the next generation of Northwest Florida water stewards!
Read more biodiversity articles at VoicesforBiodiversity.org.
Erika Zambello is a writer and photographer currently living on the Emerald Coast of Florida. She has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management from the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, where she specialized in Ecosystem Science and Conservation. She is also a National Geographic Young Explorer, completing four trips to the Maine North Woods in each of the four seasons, Fall 2015-Summer 2016.
In addition to acting as the sole blogger for the entire Florida State Park system, she is a regular contributor to the Duke Nicholas School, the Maine Sportsman, Bangor Daily News, and 10000 Birds. In the past she has published in BirdWatching Daily, the Florida Sportsman, National Geographic Adventure, Guy Harvey Magazine, Coastal Angler, and more. Finally, she is the founder and managing editor of the travel website One World, Two Feet, co-founder of TerraCommunications, as well as the co-managing editor for the award-winning online magazine Voices for Biodiversity.
Follow her daily adventures on Instagram, or zambellophotography.com.