Knowing the NERRDs: Education

By Alee Knoell

If you’re reading this, you are probably well aware of the GTM Research Reserve; maybe you utilize the trails, maybe you dabble in some volunteer work, maybe you’ve just popped in to take a look at all the cool stuff in the Visitors Center. Regardless of your relationship with the Reserve, you likely have some familiarity with what it’s all about.

Along with being an ecological haven, the Reserve is a hub of various activities from boardwalk building to taskforce meetings. With so many moving parts, one can only imagine the amount of work that must go in to keeping it all moving. In this series, we will meet and greet each of the invaluable sectors that work together to make the GTM NERR the place we all have come to know and love.

The education sector is quite a popular one for volunteer involvement… I myself stood on the turtle pad and spoke with school groups about the complexities of an estuarine food-web long before I was handed mud booties and a field pack and immersed in the marsh. Even so, there are so many other exploits that this team is responsible for beyond what we see and know- which is already plenty! And on top of it all, they are continuously coming up with fun new projects to keep it all engaging and exciting for the public, knowing the value in community involvement.

To try and really see what the education component of the GTM NERR is like through the eyes of the educators themselves, I got to talking with a few of the education staff (virtually, of course).

For anyone who imagines education as solely sitting behind a desk and listening to drab points and tidbits from a tired sounding teacher, prepare to have your world shaken. Our education team is constantly coming up with creative ways to keep students- and the public- engaged, from camps and field trips to the blossoming virtual reality program.

Kaitlyn Campbell, who started her job almost exactly two years ago, works a lot with the virtual reality (VR) program. In fact, it has provided her with her fondest memory in education thus far. Her and Gabby Canas, a previous educator at the NERR and currently a visiting investigator, were testing out the VR program in a classroom setting. Going into it, she mentioned how “you never know where the kids are, education- wise, and there was a girl with high functioning autism who was really struggling with the narration and directions that go along with the program.” Since there were two educators from the NERR, Kaitlyn was able to step away and do a one-on-one narration with the student, whose frustration was quickly displaced by the fun and excitement that VR is intended to induce. That ability to “see the progress of a student or camper” is one of the great things about education, as Kaitlyn points out, but as this anecdote alludes, it comes with work. To be able to have these kinds of impacts, one has to be able to adapt and to make modifications and accommodations very last minute.

Another testament to how far reaching and accommodating our education team is, and strives to be, comes from Savanna Mathis, another team member going on two years at the Reserve. She enlightened me on a project that her and Josie, the education coordinator, are currently working on that caters to deaf and blind students. Diverse and unique forms of engagement are so valuable in piquing the interest of the youth, and those unable to see or hear clearly face challenges in this regard. Therefore, special attention is needed to be put into making sure those students encountering such hurdles are reached. Savanna spoke with me on how they are working with the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind to roll out a program that includes hands on, accessible tools to engage the students in science.

Princess Diana (above) is a real crowd favorite, and one of Savannas favorite animals at the Reserve to work with.

As we can see, adaptability is a crucial theme for education at the GTM. It doesn’t just have a role in connecting with a diverse audience, however; as with pretty much everyone these days, our education team has had to adapt to be able to make their impacts in a COVID-19 induced virtual setting. Going from engaging with school groups face to face to talking with them through a computer screen is quite an adjustment, as Kaitlyn divulges. However, it’s not all bad. Savanna shared that the virus has played a role in propelling “a shift toward programs taking place outside”, which, considering her affinity for being out in the sunshine, is something she considers a positive side effect. Additionally, Brittany Wussick, an educator at the reserve since 2018, found a favorite project in the form of the first virtually implemented Careers on Wheels fair. A collaboration with the Duval County Public School system, this career fair video that she was able to film from her home reached a minimum of 420 students!

More of these “COVID-ified” interactions (as Brittany likes to refer to them) are in the works as well. She talked to me about some really cool and innovative ways of continuing public engagement in the midst of a pandemic, such as working on adapting the Guided Exploration Hike to continue, despite the halt on any on-site activities. Prior to the pandemic, she was in charge of coordinating, leading, publishing, and advertising the myriad of different hikes the Reserve had to offer, so this is a project she has enjoyed revisiting.  With a goal to “raise eco-awareness and promote sustainability”, what better way to achieve it then getting them to fall in love with the natural world?

Education staff left to right: Brittany Wussick, Madison Skidmore, Kaitlyn Campbell, Savanna Mathis, Josie Spearman, Tracy Weidman (*this photo was taken pre-COVID)

There is so much to be said of our amazing education staff that it is impossible to cram into this one blog post. However, my chats with the staff certainly brought into focus the immense amount of thought, creativity, and passion that goes into spreading environmental awareness and cultivating community involvement. Stay tuned for some of the awesome projects these guys have in the works on the GTM website!                                                                  

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