Invasive species are recognized as a national threat that can be constrained through pioneering research, public commitment and encouraging younger generations to choose science as a career path. University of Florida researchers are joining the cause by engaging high school teachers through a summer workshop designed to enhance lesson plans and increase student engagement.
For the last three summers, a total 36 teachers from across the state have assembled in Gainesville for the multi-day Collaborative Curriculum Design for Invasive Species Education. Workshop attendees explored how to enhance current lessons plans with the help of faculty and staff from the UF/IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, the Agronomy Department and the Agricultural Education and Communications Department.
“The two main things we wanted them to include in existing lesson plans were local context and authentic science investigation,” said Kathryn Stofer, research assistant professor. “Science is an ongoing and often very local, relevant discipline.”
Another goal of the program is to encourage teachers to introduce their students to inquiry-based science. This approach advocates students work through a problem creatively, test out hypotheses and ultimately arrive at a solution.
By learning about invasive species through inquiry-based science, students will not only increase their nonnative plant knowledge but also learn to use the same practices professional scientists use to investigate contemporary scientific questions.
Funding from the program came from a $143,000 grant from the U.S.D.A. Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.
As part of the program’s evaluation process, Stofer will stay in contact with workshop participants to research and evaluate the effectiveness of their enhanced lesson plans.
During the workshop, teachers were encouraged to think local when revamping their inquiry-based lesson plans. UF faculty encouraged teachers from South Florida to cover local invaders such as pythons or green anacondas while Palatka teachers were encouraged to focus on problems in their area such as hydrilla.
“We wanted the workshop to be very much based on what they were already doing, so they didn’t have to add in anything new [to their school year], but they were replacing and improving what they were already doing,” Stofer said.
One teacher was planning a model activity on overfishing. UF faculty suggested exposing students to the inquiry-based approach by discussing with her students the impacts of adding local invasive species such as lionfish to the model and how that would disrupt the fish population.
The idea for the workshop spawned from participant feedback in another UF workshop for K-12 teachers on invasive plants. High school instructors were specifically asking for a more in-depth experience.
Even though the workshop focused on invasive species, lessons learned can be applied more broadly to other types of lesson plans, according to Stofer.
“The idea here is for these teachers to take what they learned and reach new students over multiple years. Also, we hope they apply what they learned [about authentic inquiry-based science teaching] to other lessons and topics and continue to share their knowledge with other teachers back in their districts and through other networks.”
Workshop attendees have included teachers focusing on disciplines from agriculture and environmental science, to marine science, chemistry and biology.
This year’s group visited Bivens Arm Nature Park where they saw a myriad of invasive species including the apple snail, cogon grass, coral ardisia and the air potato vine.