Students learn the importance of preserving the ecosystem
BY SCOTT LUXOR
SUN SENTINEL/TNS FORT
LAUDERDALE – Leaders from schools and nonprofits are creating opportunities for middle and high school students to change their thinking and actions to build a greener future.
Teens have begun taking a larger role in the environmental movement globally. Students can take their cue from a Swiss teen who has taken the world by storm, just in the last year Greta Thunberg, the force of nature behind Fridays for Future, has rapidly been orienting the youth movement toward finding solutions to climate change, with her impassioned pleas to international organizations and governments to address the issue with urgency.
Inspired by the Swiss teen, over 1.6 million teens on all seven continents, including more than 125 countries, left their schools during the week of March 15 to protest inaction on climate change.
Volunteer coordinators and leaders in Broward County have been reaching out to tomorrow’s leaders to educate them about the environment as well as our impact on the balance of the ecosystem.
Kristen Hoss is a volunteer with the Youth Environmental Alliance in Broward County, which has been implementing educational programs focused on Florida’s fragile ecology and restoration.
They regularly work with teens, both within schools and on field trips to natural areas, to instill the importance of preserving our ecosystem.
Hoss said she is passionate about making sure children get meaningful experiences that last beyond their volunteer experience.
“What really motivated me beyond my norm was my sister having kids,” she said. “I want my nieces to experience everything that I did in the natural world. I want to empower individuals to be the change.”
Hoss sees the youth as a natural force for change.
“Children have power and numbers. The response to the Parkland shooting demonstrates that, as do the marches globally that stemmed from one young girl speaking out about climate change.”
At a recent field trip to the Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale, middle school students from Apollo Middle School’s Global Scholars Program in Hollywood were given the opportunity to plant mangroves, a shrub or small tree that grows in coastal salt water.
Mangroves occur in Florida and worldwide in tropical zones. Globally, about one-fifth of the world’s mangrove ecosystems have been lost since 1980. However, grassroots efforts to save mangroves from development are becoming more popular as their benefits become more widely known.
These are the kinds of ecological facts that students can learn in school but it’s not the same as experiencing them in their actual environment.
Got hands dirty
All the teens from the high school wore bright red in contrast to the rich green of the nature preserve. Many of them had attitudes at first, both about being out in the woods on a hot day and about getting their hands full of dirt.
Neither of those experiences is common for city youths who spend much of their time at a computer or cruising social media on their phones.
Hoss, who also served as the field trip advisor, loves getting students into nature to get their hands dirty. It is the seeds planted as a young child that starts an environmental ethic.
“Teens’ focus often shifts to romance, college prep and defining ourselves as we become adults. The lessons learned as kids come back around as we enter college or later,” she said.
Learning by doing
Jalane Meloun, the mother of one of the students on the field trip, took part in the environmental effort at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. When asked about her son’s involvement in the effort, she was passionate about it.
“I love that he’s in the program. This is an exciting program. They get to learn by doing rather than just reading about it. They get to get their hands dirty and feel what that actually feels like,” she said.
Meloun said it’s important to get kids heads out of “the cloud.”
“Environmental activism is not just about clicking a ‘like’ on Facebook or doing something on social media. It’s about getting out and doing something and truly giving back. It’s also walking the talk. It’s something to be vocally supportive but this is about getting your hands dirty.”
The Anne Kolb Nature Center in Hollywood was the setting for another field trip. This one was dedicated to teaching the flow of life in aquatic ecosystems.
The 1,500-acre center is the largest regional park with a coastal mangrove wetland rich in plant and animal life, including some threatened and endangered species.
The students from South Plantation Magnet High School took up the fun but not-so-easy task of fishing that day. They were given instructions on how to catch a fish, study what kind it is, then to throw it back in the water.
The idea is to give them a direct connection to aquatic life that will help them understand their direct impact on the water ecosystem.
After that, they were taken on a boat ride to learn about the habitat. A couple of the students were then given the opportunity to drag a net to collect plankton and other critters from the water.
One of them found a snail, which he played with while it crawled up the side of a cup of the water sample. They also learned the critical role that the microscopic plankton play in the aquatic ecosystem.
Joanne Howes, parks manager for the county’s Parks and Recreation Division, was the field trip’s main leader.
“If we expose students at an early age to their environment, caring for it will be more natural — something they have been exposed to as a part of their lives. If we teach good environmental habits at a young age, it will become second nature to them,” she said.
Howes emphasizes that it’s critical to have a hands-on approach to exposing youth in person to nature. But she feels that there is a much larger context as well beyond the environmental issues that society needs to deal with.
“Connecting students to nature can be the start of a lifelong journey filled with science exploration and much more,” she said. “Nature can bring a sense of awe and wonder and oftentimes a needed place of solitude.”
The real world
Holly Desmarais, a secondary science teacher at South Plantation High School, was on the trip with the students as they learned firsthand about the complexity of the aquatic environment.
“If you can’t bring the real world into the classroom, then it’s not going to do any good. You can teach them out of the book but they’re never going to appreciate it until they see it,” she said.
“We like to talk about conservation and sustainability,” Desmarais said.
“A lot of the students don’t even know what’s in their own backyard. So we’re trying to get them to appreciate what’s around them as well as to appreciate the value of the environment to not only know about it but we can’t protect it if we don’t know how important it is.
“You’d think with them living in South Florida that they’d know this stuff, but I’ve had kids in the past who have lived their entire life in Florida yet they’ve never seen a real alligator. This encourages them to see how cool it is to be outside in nature.”
Reality of pollution
Lena Santiago, a park aide at the Anne Kolb Nature Center, said she feels exposing students to these issues at a young age is key.
“It’s so important for students,” she said, adding they need to understand the human impact on nature.
“The environment is getting polluted, more every day. Plastic is killing a lot of animals. Many baby birds can’t tell the difference between plastic and food. Even baby fish eat plastic — and some die from it,” she said.
“So there won’t be any fish if that continues. Also, when people eat these fish after they grow up, they get poisoned because the plastic stays in their system, which is toxic for humans.”
Santiago said she also feels young people have a need to know as much as possible before they start electing lawmakers.
“When they’re ready to vote, they can influence governors and presidents to care more about the environment. That’s why they have to start now,” she added.