Joy of Discovery with Young Explorers

Local students from the ecology class at Saint Edward’s School join the ranks of lagoon explorers, present and future

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Students from the ecology class at Saint Edward's School. Photography by Steven Martine
Students from the ecology class at Saint Edward’s School. Photography by Steven Martine

The shoreline is alive with lush green vegetation, colorful flowers, the glittering wings of butterflies in flight, and the murmuring buzz of honeybees. Wading into the water with nets in their hands are several enthusiastic high school students. One catches a fish and cries out excitedly. The catch will soon be released; it is intended neither as supper nor as a trophy. This is a scientific expedition, and the student’s excitement comes from being able to identify the species.  

These young people are exploring the Jones Pier Conservation Area, on Vero Beach’s historic Jungle Trail. They are part of a special program with Saint Edward’s School that allows them to do fieldwork on Indian River County conservation lands. With this hands-on experience, they are learning about the joy of discovery and the wonders of the lagoon.

Seining at five different habitats in the salt marsh yields many species worth recording and studying 1
Seining at five different habitats in the salt marsh yields many species worth recording and studying.

It’s all part of the plan, according to county conservation lands program coordinator Ashley Lingwood. Along with preserving the lands, she explains, “We make it a big priority to get the public involved, especially students and children. We want them to appreciate the wonderful ecosystem we have here.”  

A grant from the National Estuary Program is another part of the equation with the program. “They really provide resources for lagoon education,” says Lingwood enthusiastically. In addition to Saint Edward’s, other on-site lagoon education programs involve Vero Beach High School’s AP Environmental Science Program, local homeschool groups, and special resources for students from homeless families. 

The study area of the Saint Edward’s ecology class includes the water and surrounding plants and wildlife at Jones Pier Conservation Area
The study area of the Saint Edward’s ecology class includes the water and surrounding plants and wildlife at Jones Pier Conservation Area.

Lingwood has observed how these programs help local students to appreciate what may have been hidden in plain sight for them. “We often hear them say they’ve never seen a scrub jay before,” or that they are seeing other species of local flora and fauna for the first time in their lives. She has heard some VBHS students say, “I can’t believe this is here! I can’t believe this is next to my house!”

Might these experiences with nature shape the future of some students? “If someone becomes a biologist, that would be great,” says Lingwood with a smile, “but what we really want is for them to appreciate Florida’s beautiful natural environment.” And the Jones Pier location is a rich place to foster that appreciation.

The salt marsh is directly across Jungle Trail from the Indian River Lagoon
The salt marsh is directly across Jungle Trail from the Indian River Lagoon.

Such has certainly been the observation of Brandy Nelson, a Saint Edward’s teacher who uses the Jones Pier Conservation Area to give her ecology class exciting field experience, building their skill set for scientific research and their appreciation for nature in Florida. “This is an ideal conservation area,” Nelson declares. Since it features both a living shoreline and a salt marsh, the Jones Pier Conservation Area is “an amazing mix” of habitats. Indeed, the ecological significance of the salt marsh at Jones Pier is central to the involvement of the National Estuary Program.  

A salt marsh is a grassy wetland that is affected by the cycle of the tides; thus, it is a unique habitat. Salt marshes serve as spawning or feeding grounds for a wide variety of creatures. The rich biodiversity of salt marshes makes them valued as conservation areas; appropriately, biodiversity has been a special focus of study for Nelson’s students.

Seining at five different habitats in the salt marsh yields many species worth recording and studying
Seining at five different habitats in the salt marsh yields many species worth recording and studying.

Their studies begin in the classroom with lessons about salt marshes, and then become real with immersion in the environment itself. And they were ready for the adventure. “Within the first five minutes, they had jumped into the salt marsh with comfort and with excitement,” Nelson reports. “And what really surprised me was how quickly they gravitated to different interests, whether water quality, fish, or crustaceans.”

The students’ fieldwork includes seine and cast netting and identifying the species they find; working in the conservation area’s wet lab with microscopes; and nature photography, including the use of drones. As one enthusiastic student, Emmy, puts it, “We learn how to conduct research in a natural environment, not just in a classroom,” as well as getting to be very good at seine and cast netting. “I enjoy the hands-on experience, ability to learn outdoors, conducting the experiment, and exploring new organisms that I have never seen before, such as the striped burrfish.” 

Saint Edward’s School ecology students Kiley and Chase seine the salt marsh while teacher Brandy Nelson and classmates follow along to help them collect their catch
Saint Edward’s School ecology students Kiley and Chase seine the salt marsh while teacher Brandy Nelson and classmates follow along to help them collect their catch.

Another student, Chase, adds, “I have learned so much about biodiversity, not just the salt marsh, but the Indian River Lagoon overall. I have loved making memories and bonding with my classmates, but also throughout this project I have grown to really take an interest in marine biology, and that will always stay with me.”

The variety of tasks promotes the development of a multitude of skills. Furthermore, students are given freedom to prepare their own research projects and then implement them, teaching them principles of scientific leadership. Student Millicent explains, “Research projects are much more approachable than they seem. We were nervous going into it and believed that we really were not capable of conducting research, but we caught on quickly and have learned so much while having fun.”  

Emmy pulls a fish from the seine
Emmy pulls a fish from the seine.

Indeed, an important aspect of the program is that, although training is being provided, these are not just exercises; the students are engaging in scientific research that helps document the biodiversity of the Jones Pier Conservation Area. Along with Nelson, they are being mentored by Blair Witherington, a biologist and author with a PhD in zoology from the University of Florida and extensive conservation experience, who is currently vice president and a research scientist with Inwater Research; Wendy Swindell, conservation lands manager for Indian River County’s Department of Parks and Recreation; and Lingwood. 

“Wendy, Ashley, and Dr. Witherington are just phenomenal resources,” says Nelson appreciatively. Findings are presented at the Indian River Lagoon Symposium at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, giving the students further professional involvement and expanding their interaction with the scientific community. As student Kiley relates, “I’ve enjoyed creating experiments to collect data that can be used by real-world scientists. Our understanding of the project grows each time we go to the salt marsh. We’re able to complete the sampling faster and easier than the time before. I’ve gained a better understanding of how to conduct an experiment and collect data on real-world projects.”

Emmy gets help from teacher Brandy Nelson
Emmy gets help from teacher Brandy Nelson.

For the fieldwork, the ecologically diverse Jones Pier Conservation Area is mapped out and divided into five different habitats: salt marsh, deep pond, shoreline, trail, and intake and outflow areas. Each of these is further subdivided, and site stations are set up for the collection and identification of samples. 

For example, there are five site stations in the salt marsh area alone. Then, when a fish (for example) is caught at a given site, an image is obtained according to established procedures, with the fish’s head facing left; an identification is made using the scientific name; and the location is recorded. Water quality samples are also taken in various spots, and they are analyzed for salinity, dissolved oxygen, and temperature. Meanwhile, students walking on the trails identify land-based flora and fauna. In addition to photography, they have the option of sketching noteworthy plants, thereby honing a time-honored skill in natural history fieldwork. Does all this sound complex? It is. These young people are gaining genuine scientific experience.  

The findings are then identified and recorded
The findings are then identified and recorded.

A salt marsh is a changing environment by definition, given the role of the tides. Furthermore, as the program continues, the students will be visiting the conservation area at different times of the year, taking new samples, and comparing. Nelson explains, “We had talked in the classroom about spaciotemporal trends in ecology, but seeing it is different.” 

Students notice that sampling results can vary widely, and they become curious about why. The differences can seem like population shifts; however, they are to be expected given the dynamic nature of salt marshes and the fact that this is a newly designated conservation area that is only now being deliberately preserved and maintained. “There will be flux, and rightly so—there should be,” Nelson says. Tracking the data over time will give students a frame of reference to make comparisons and gives them a sense of perspective.

Recording the day's findings
Recording the day’s findings.

Witherington, who was introduced to the Jones Pier site when his wife, Dawn, contributed some of her artwork for the interpretive signs, concurs. “The sampling provides a record of biological diversity that would anchor assessment of trends over time,” he explains. “Already, some key species have been identified as being prominent at the site, like juvenile snook and tarpon. It seems the ‘build it and they will come’ hypothesis is proving true” for the salt marsh, and the Jones Pier Conservation Area “is a marvelous success on many levels.” And from the first day the students were there, Witherington recalls, he could see “sparks of curiosity” in their eyes.  

Sparks of curiosity, indeed. Nelson says, “When students are in the field and they’re smiling and laughing and learning, I’m always amazed at what they retain.” This knowledge leads to deeper discussions and a deeper understanding of Florida ecology. And it leads to personal discoveries. “You see the students who were not exactly excited to touch a fish, and then they’re holding it up and explaining its species! They don’t even realize how much they’re learning. Every day is a good day.” 

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