Laughter. Excitement. Anticipation. And a little bit of fear. A group of fourth grade students from Miami arrive at Everglades National Park on a yellow school bus looking forward to a day of exploring. Will they see alligators? Will they see a Florida panther? Will mosquitoes bite them?
Although fourth grade students have been visiting Everglades National Park for over 45 years, this year is extra special as we celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. Also new this year is President Obama's Every Kid in a Park initiative, an effort to get every kid in a park or on federal lands by the time they are 12. The initiative provides for free entrance to all students, with their families accompanying them, while they are in fourth grade.
For the 2015-16 school year, after the park had already scheduled 150 classes to visit Shark Valley as part of the Everglades' popular education program, there were still over 150 fourth-grade classes on the waiting list.
The park's education staff devised an alternative model using field stations about key Everglades topics through which the students could rotate, guided by their chaperones. Five groups of 10 students could move through five stations while another 50 students could walk a trail and then switch.
The next question was how to do it without more staff or more funding. Enter park volunteer Ellen Siegel, a financial planner and long-time advocate for the park. Ellen was appalled knowing that 3,000 kids were unable to visit the park this year. She and I met for lunch and began formulating a plan. Ellen got to work recruiting new volunteers who would enjoy working with students. In just two months, Ellen managed to recruit 25 volunteers willing to dedicate one day per week for four months to teach kids, fourth graders specifically, about the wonders of the Everglades.
Meanwhile, I worked with our education team to develop materials and props for the ten minute lessons on five topics: birds, alligators, sawgrass, invasive species and the Everglades watershed. To maintain the quality and value for the teachers, we benchmarked the lessons to state curriculum standards for fourth grade.
To prepare teachers and consequently their students for the visit, we also developed a webinar to bring teachers up to speed on logistics, safety, and background knowledge.
To offset program costs, the park applied for and received a grant from the National Park Foundation for bus transportation, materials and staffing support.
The first programs began after the winter break. With only a few minor kinks to work out, the programs were an instant success.
Here's what some teachers had to say:
The trip gave students an opportunity to experience science in action. The ability to touch, see, and feel plants and animals in their habitat helped make science real. This was an experience that my students will never forget.
This was an AMAZING trip for my students. The staff and volunteers did a wonderful job of engaging the students, probing, asking questions, and most importantly teaching my students about the beauty of national parks. I took 106 students and of those 106 only 4 students had ever been to the Everglades. Programs like this bring learning to life.
My students thoroughly enjoyed working in the small groups that they were divided into and listening/investigating the ecosystem that they are a part of. This trip enabled them to experience first-hand a part of their science curriculum that is so often not understood nor appreciated.
In just four months, from January to April 2016, almost 2,800 fourth grade students from Miami-Dade County and their teachers not only made it to Everglades National Park but actively engaged in hands-on learning that reinforced concepts from their textbooks. Kelly Wood, the lead ranger for this program, estimated that for 80 percent of the students, this was their very first visit to their backyard national park.
The lasting impact of this program was not just for the students. The Everglades has this magical ability to help people connect, to find what they are seeking.
Volunteer Wendy Doscher-Smith said, "While I expected my participation as a teacher in The EKIP program to be a fun, learning experience for both the fourth graders and myself, what I didn't expect is for it to give me hope for the future!"
Volunteer Valerie Robbin said, "It helped me to reconnect with the Everglades. I've been there several times through the years but, not in recent years. Now I'm addicted to the Park. I feel like something is missing if I no longer go once a week."
Ellen Siegel's goal is to get every fourth grader in Miami-Dade County to the Everglades, which is no small task considering there are about 25,000 of them. The interim goal for next year is to expand the program. Ellen is on a mission to find 100 volunteers so that we can offer the program four days per week at two locations for four months. That's 800 students per week for a total of nearly 10,000 kids. It's not all about the numbers, but the more students who visit, the more possible connections are made with their natural environment that surrounds them.
As Doscher-Smith commented, "Many of the students I observed had never truly experienced being outdoors, let alone walking in a wetlands environment. I noticed they benefited from the simplicity of experiencing nature in its purest form-from being in the sun and amongst the trees-which seemed to make their experience more real and memorable."
Volunteer Valerie Robbin aptly described the program's goal: "I feel that we are planting a seed in the minds of the students. That as they age, they will have a positive memory of how important it is to protect the Everglades and all that it means to our environment."