Teachers get a hands-on lesson in Florida ecology


Teachers from various county schools, including Aaron Barnes, center, attend a weeklong Plant Camp to learn about Florida's unique plant situation for incorporation into their school curriculum.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 3:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 3:36 p.m.

Todd Space has been teaching biology to high schoolers for years, but this week he's a student.

Standing outside the University of Florida's Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, with mud on his shoes from tramping around the pond, he admitted it felt good to switch roles.

"It's nice to learn once in a while," Space said.

Space and 23 other educators from around the state are participating in Plant Camp 2013, a weeklong workshop where teachers trade their classrooms for the outdoors and learn about Florida's native flora and fauna.

The program was started eight years ago at UF's Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, and is supported in large part by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The goal is to better equip teachers to teach about Florida ecology while meeting state standards for science curricula.

Plant Camp focuses on the importance of identifying and managing invasive plant species in the context of preserving Florida's natural ecology. The week includes a crash course in botany, identifying plants in the field and a trip to the FWC fisheries division in Kissimmee.

"People tend to care about things if they know about them," said Amy Richard, who coordinates the program's invasive plant education initiative.

Teaching students about their natural environment could make them better stewards, she said.

On Wednesday, the two dozen teachers and a handful of Plant Camp staff gathered at the CAIP to identify native and exotic plants with David Hall, a forensic botanist and former director of UF's plant identification and information service.

Hall pulled a leafy plant with soggy, stringy roots from a bucket and asked his pupils, "First of all, is this woody or herbaceous?"

"Herbaceous," the teachers answered in unison. They did their homework -- there's a test almost every day of Plant Camp.

Hall identified the plant as water lettuce, a species on whose origin experts disagree.

The group walked around the pond, picking up specimens of pennywort, alligator weed and giant bulrush.

Some look the same to the untrained eye -- except for a tiny detail.

"That's one of the reasons that plants are so much fun to study," he said. "There are just infinite variations."

Carrie Gerace, a fourth-grade teacher at Cape View Elementary, traveled from Brevard County to attend Plant Camp.

The program came at a convenient time for her. Cape View begins its life science unit in the beginning of the school year.

"I'll be able to start right away with what I've learned," she said.

Next, Sharon Fitz-Coy, a senior biologist with UF's department of fisheries and aquatic services, led an exercise in identifying Florida's bite-sized swamp critters.

"I'm hoping to change any 'icks' and 'ewws' to 'oohs' and 'ahhs' and 'wows,'" Fitz-Coy said as the teachers dipped fine nets into the ponds, sifting for tiny animals.

They came up with at least a dozen kinds -- damselfly larvae, just a few millimeters long; tadpoles in different stages of development; leeches; backswimmers and giant water bugs.

Inside the center, the teachers identified each creature using a dichotomous key, an identification guide that leads to the answer through a series of questions about the animal's physical characteristics.

This is an activity that could be repeated in any retention pond or ditch with standing water, Fitz-Coy said.

"You will be amazed at what will appear in there," she said.

Contact Erin Jester at 352-338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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