By Ana Zangroniz & Laura Tiu
Earlier this month, my esteemed colleague Laura Tiu (Walton County Florida Sea Grant Agent), and I concluded our first hybrid Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) course. We taught Coastal Systems following on the heels of a successful fully virtual Freshwater Systems course that we offered last summer. During 2021, we intentionally planned the Freshwater virtual course to allow for the most flexibility as the Covid-19 pandemic continued to evolve. The ancillary benefit was that we got the opportunity to teach together despite the 630-mile stretch between our regions.
Since the fully virtual class received such highly positive feedback, we decided to try a similar approach for our Spring 2022 Coastal Systems course. The difference this time would be that the course field trips would be held in-person in our respective counties. We loved the flexibility of using Zoom as our virtual classroom, namely for the ability for people across the state to participate in our class. This section consisted of 13 participants: 1 from the Panhandle, 1 from Brevard County, 4 from the Gulf Coast, and 7 from the Miami-Dade and Broward area.
In-class and on-your-own activities
To supplement the required modules and videos of the Coastal Systems course, Laura and I coordinated several guest speakers highlighting current research or issues across the state. These speakers presented on the challenges of beach nourishment, coastal dune lakes, stony coral thermal research, shark monitoring via drones, manatee aerial surveys, and more. Historically, since the FMNP classes were taught in-person and limited by geographic region, the supplemental information presented was also limited by region. The opportunity to expand the subject matter and discussions across the state really created a well-rounded learning environment, and the students were able to share and learn from one another. Laura and I assigned “reflection activities,” such as articles to read or short videos to watch outside of class, to discuss during the following session. These discussions allowed for a thoughtful dialogue around several pertinent issues that Florida faces, from seafood sustainability to climate change.
The Miami-Dade County field trips were held at Crandon Park and Biscayne National Park and offered the chance to explore multiple coastal ecosystems: hardwood hammocks, estuarine areas, dune systems, mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and the fossilized reef at Bear Cut. This reef is one of only two that exist worldwide. We seined and with much delight, got to examine juvenile fish and invertebrate species found in the seagrass at Crandon Park. Since the weather cancelled our paddling trip, I was prepared with a backup plan: I taught about the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish and led the group through a dissection lab, in which we examined the gut contents of the lionfish. My partners at Miami EcoAdventures co-lead the Crandon field trip and discussed their methods of communicating and interacting with visitors. All of the students practiced their interpretative skills, trying out approaches based upon audience (high school students, young children, adults, etc.).
The Walton County field trips were held at Grayton Beach State Park, Topsail State Park and the Destin History and Fishing Museum. The group hiked the nature trail experiencing a variety of coastal ecosystems and habitats from coastal dunes through the maritime forests and into the coastal uplands along with the flora and fauna that live there. We then paddled one of the rare coastal dune lakes, exploring the diversity of species that occur in this unique sometimes fresh, sometimes saline environment and the unique outflow that connects them to the Gulf of Mexico. Additional trips included a Master Naturalist led guided native plant walk focusing on the high density of carnivorous plants in the Panhandle and a trip to the Destin History and Fishing Museum to learn about the founding and development of this coastal community and the fishing and tourism that shape it.
The final project
All FMNP core module courses require a completion of a final project that demonstrates an application of skills gained or concepts mastered. The students have the choice to work in groups for their final project. Despite several group members physically separated by distance, the breadth of projects presented to the class were impressive: groups designed a concept for a scavenger hunt app, a geocaching activity, a “how-to” guide for using a dichotomous key, a design concept for marina signage about seagrass-safe boating, and an educational calendar featuring photographs and information about local species, and others. All in all, the result was an enriching and engaging educational experience. Laura and I look forward to partnering again for future courses. To view current FMNP course offerings near you, please visit the FMNP Current Courses page.