Looking Back on LIFE: A Successful Year for Sarasota County’s Award Winning Youth Education Program

Malala Yousafzai, youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient and youth advocate for the power of education and equal opportunity for girls, famously said, “The world is shaped by the dreams and ambitions of its young minds.” As we work to address some of our most pressing environmental questions and challenges, the hands, hearts, and minds that will grow to mold our world into a work of sustainable art need a strong foundation of ecological literacy and a personal connection to the natural world around them.

Ecological literacy is the understanding of Earth’s natural systems, vital processes, and ecological communities, and how they relate to and impact each other. Ecological literacy also includes an awareness of how human activities impact those systems and processes. Sarasota County’s LIFE (Learning in Florida’s Environment) Program seeks to meet that need, creating a place for our environment in the dreams and ambitions of Sarasota County’s youth.

An image of a woman sitting down with a circle of children, showing them an x-ray image of an animal skeleton.
Students learn how to distinguish between vertebrate and invertebrate animals at Lemon Bay Park.

An Award-winning Interagency Collaboration

A park ranger looks on as a child looks through a microscope.
Myakka River State Park Ranger Keirsey happily assists students in using microscopes to view microscopic plankton in samples of water collected from the Myakka River.
A group of adults lays in a circle, smiling and enthusiastically looking at the camera above.
LIFE program educators are passionate professionals who love the work they do!

The LIFE Program began in 2004 as a Department of Environmental Protection outreach program for middle school youth. Starting in 2017, UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County developed and has been coordinating LIFE in our county as an award-winning, multi-agency environmental education program for 4th and 5th grade students. Several key agencies and organizations are brought together to make this work possible.

Myakka River State Park has graciously provided support throughout the years, first as a partnering site for field trips along with Oscar Scherer State Park and Lemon Bay County Park. In recent years, Myakka has bolstered their support of the LIFE program in Sarasota County by providing staff and volunteer support, leading lab activities, and revising educational materials. In the Fall of 2023, the Friends of Myakka River further provided support through funding of bus transportation for Title 1 schools attending LIFE at Myakka.

Other vital partners include Florida State Parks Foundation, Florida Sea Grant, Florida Conservation Corps, AmeriCorps, Sarasota County School District, Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, and EdExploreSRQ. Dedicated volunteers from our community additionally provide invaluable support that increases our capacity to provide this program.

What is LIFE All About?

An image of 21 binoculars prepared and ready to go for children to use.The LIFE program provides a 1-hour, in-class preparatory presentation followed by a 3-hour field trip to a local county or state park or preserve. Field labs provide an opportunity for students to act as wildlife biologists, marine scientists, and more, with the goal of making science and scientific careers more accessible. At each field experience, students rotate through 3 different labs which are focused on an important local ecosystem, land management challenges, and choices students could make to decrease environmental impact. Each lab is aligned to Florida State science standards, and supports teacher-identified needs for curriculum review for standardized test success.

Increasing Environmental Literacy and Youth Access to Local Natural Areas

A park ranger stands with youth as they work on a pyramid-shaped model containing various photos of wildlife that live in the Myakka River ecosystem.
Myakka River State Park Ranger Hall teaches youth how energy flows through an ecosystem.

From December 2023 – January 2024, 17 LIFE field trips to Myakka River State Park were attended by 605 4th and 5th grade Sarasota County school district students who studied Florida’s Freshwater ecosystems. Students learned about freshwater plankton, how energy from the sun moves through ecosystems, biodiversity, water quality and aquatic macroinvertebrates, and bird and alligator adaptations.

Due to the Friends of Myakka River’s gracious funding, 69% of students attending these field trips came from Title 1 schools, with 72% of students having had the opportunity to visit Myakka River State Park for the first time because of the LIFE Program. Overall, students exhibited a 33% knowledge gain based on pre- and post-test assessments.

A group of children and adults wade in shallow, flat water.
Youth love wading into Lemon Bay to find a variety of fascinating marine species.

In April of 2024, our LIFE program culminated with nine field trips to Lemon Bay Park and Environmental Center, engaging 274 4th and 5th grade students from 5 schools. These students rotated through three science-based activities focused on the importance of mangrove forests and estuaries, marine invertebrate taxonomy, and animal adaptations in coastal ecosystems.

Pre- to post-test scores indicate an overall knowledge gain of 25% with individual question scores showing greatest improvement in knowledge about our native mangroves, marine invertebrate taxonomy, and the importance of prescribed fire to Florida’s ecosystems. 80% of students also indicated never having visited Lemon Bay Park before!

What’s Next for LIFE?

We are currently adapting the program to be offered to a wider range of ages, as well as for summer camps and other youth education programs, in order to bring this valuable experience to more youth in Sarasota County. This summer, over 100 youth will get to participate in modified versions of the LIFE program.

If you are interested in having the youth you work with participate in  LIFE in the future, please reach out to Dr. Katherine Clements, kclements@scgov.net, and visit our website for more information.

A woman and children stand at a table with a crocodile and alligator skull.
Teresa J. Good, a Sarasota County Parks Naturalist teaches children about the difference between crocodiles and alligators.

Improving water quality, wildlife conservation, the protection of our state’s spectacular biodiversity, for which we rank 7th in the nation, and sustainable land management are important environmental concerns in Florida.

As we invest in our youth’s connection to nature and ability to understand the natural world, we invest in generations of change-makers, professionals, and members of the public who can make decisions and solve problems with the health of our environment in mind.

We enthusiastically look forward to continuing to provide this esteemed program in the 2024-2025 school year.

Watch this short video to learn more about how our programs educate about water quality.


Zahir Ringgold Cordes, Environmental Education and Outreach Program Assistant for UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County's Ecology and Natural Resources Program
Posted: July 1, 2024

Category: 4-H & Youth, Coasts & Marine, Conservation, Natural Resources, Water, Wildlife
Tags: Conservation, Environment, LIFE Program, Nature, Pgm_EcoNR, Youth Development, Youth Education

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