Science teachers learn to spread the word about invasive plants

When Kenny Coogan, a seventh-grade science teacher at Orange Grove Middle Magnet School, took an airboat ride on Lake Tohopekaliga and saw the devastation caused by invasive plants, he knew he had to bring this information back to his classroom.

“After seeing the negative effects of the plants first-hand, I knew I needed to share this experience and ways to mitigate the invasive species with my students,” Coogan said.

Local middle and high school science teachers like Coogan are getting help in spreading the word about invasive plants, thanks to a partnership between the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Each June the UF/IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants invites 24 teachers from across the state to a five-day Plant Camp where they learn about invasive plants and how they can bring this knowledge and awareness into the classroom.

When it comes to challenges facing endangered species, invasive species are second only to habitat loss, said Bill Haller, professor and UF/IFAS CAIP program director. Controlling invasive plants protects native plants and animals, and it’s a constant battle—which is why the next generation needs to get involved, he said.

Teachers are the best way to reach the greatest number of these youth, said Katie Walters, education initiative coordinator at UF/IFAS CAIP. The camp is aimed at educators who teach grades four through 12.

Back in 2005, the UF/IFAS Florida Invasive Plant Education Initiative began working with teachers to develop an invasive plant curriculum that included more than 100 different lesson plans and activities. However, “just developing that curriculum wasn’t enough, and the teachers requested a workshop,” said Walters.

The Plant Camp, which started in 2007, answered this need for more hands-on training. Teachers come away from the camp with a lot of material and tools to make science fun for their students, Walters said. She hopes this will ultimately make the next generation more aware of invasive plants.

The camp includes presentations by UF/IFAS faculty and FWC personnel, as well as activities such as plant identification and invasive plant removal. During each activity, teachers learn how they can translate what they are learning into their lesson plans.

Attendees also take fieldtrips to sites such as Paynes Prairie, where Chinese tallow and Japanese climbing fern have invaded. “We want to give them an idea of the scale of what an invasive problem looks like,” said Walters, and seeing how a plant can invade a landscape makes a big impact.

Tracy Jenner, science teacher at Yankeetown School, said what she learned at Plant Camp has helped her better engage her students, and they now understand that taking care of the environment is their responsibility. “The other exciting thing for me was meeting so many people that have led me to take my students on a variety of field trips that I would never have done,” Jenner said.

Applicants must submit a personal statement and letter of recommendation. Applications become available online and in paper form in January of each year. A Plant Camp diploma counts toward professional development points, which teachers need to maintain their teaching certification, Walters said.

Teachers can learn more about the UF/IFAS Plant Camp at http://plants.ifas.ufl.edu/.

By: Samantha Grenrock, 352-294-3307, grenrosa@ufl.edu

Sources: Katie Walters, 352-273-3665, katie716@ufl.edu

Bill Haller, 352-392-9613, whaller@ufl.edu

UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones