By Matthew Sanford
Within the English language, there exists many proverbs: “red skies at night, a sailors delight, red skies in the morning, sailors take warning.” There is also my personal favorite coming from poet Dixon Lanier Merritt, “a wonderful bird is the pelican, that can fit more in its beak than its belly can.” During the current environment, there exists a more apt proverb: “necessity is the mother of invention.” An organization that exemplifies that mantra is Florida Virtual School (FLVS). Because of COVID-19, FLVS partnered with the Florida Department of Education to provide professional development centered on the transition to online learning. In addition, FLVS created an award-winning Online Learning Community, flvs.net/community, to provide a platform to share best practices with teachers and parents that have been newly introduced to online learning.
Founded in 1997, FLVS was the country’s first statewide internet-based high school. Accustomed to a large student population, more than 200,000 in all, the school has received numerous awards and is nationally recognized. However, the teacher training has been a monumental task — one that was desperately needed. The platform and the medium that Florida Virtual School occupies is not a new one. In fact, I was a beneficiary of its accessibility when I was physically unable to attend high school classes in person. What is remarkable is that they are meeting the call for a revamping of curriculums to complement the surge of students who will be taking classes virtually. As well as invention, Florida Virtual School is also representative of innovation. The FLVS format connects students with a teacher in addition to other students enrolled in the class. Due to the pandemic and the continued spread of the virus, many families were forced into a moment of reflection regarding the current climate and what is best for their respective families. Florida Virtual School provides a viable alternative for these families if they feel uncomfortable with having their children going back to in-person learning.
Even though online education is fairly new, many advancements have occurred since I used the FLVS platform back in 2015. One supplementary function is the capability to engage in online meet-ups. This technology has been around, but the increased use of applications like Zoom and Google Hangout have made virtual meet-ups much easier. Additionally, FLVS addresses a concern that many parents have with online learning, which is the socialization their children lose from not being in a classroom with other kids. To accomplish this, FLVS provides clubs for students to be involved in, offering a platform for students to join together digitally and share interests with one another.
About six months prior to the pandemic, the leadership at the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF) began working with FLVS to develop a new Environmental Science course and revamp their existing Marine Science 1 curriculum. You could say that GHOF was uncannily prescient of the virtual future of education. Or maybe it was fate. Either way, virtual learning has quickly become a “necessary invention.”
The GHOF has spent more than two decades accumulating marine-related data through intensive research projects on sharks, rays, billfish and a host of other sea creatures. Some 140 research papers have been published alongside more than 50 educational films and countless articles in magazines, on websites, blogs and podcasts. This rich content adds real-world application not only to marine and environmental science, but also to many of the subjects within the curriculum created by FLVS in the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) family.
The purpose of the GHOF has always been to conduct scientific research and educational programs aimed at conserving the marine environment. The goal is to ensure that future generations can enjoy and benefit from a naturally balanced ocean ecosystem. Teaming with FLVS to expand the school’s marine-related curriculum offering is a great way to further the GHOF mission. The research papers and video footage from these projects allow for the further education of students and increased tools for teachers to familiarize themselves with marine topics.
In the state of Florida, the ocean is a constant. It presents food, fun and sometimes hurricanes and waterspouts. But these qualities do not fully account for the complexity of the environmental exchange between Floridians and the waters that surround us. While most science curricula cover the natural phenomenon of precipitation or the way the currents in the ocean are directed, this new Environment Science course differs from the norm. The course is dedicated to understanding the interactions between the earth’s natural systems and the demands placed on them by the human population. Perhaps the perfect example of this is the importance of the mangrove forests that line Florida’s coasts. They are beautiful and their twisting roots are instantly recognizable as quintessential Florida, but their contribution to the beautification of our coastline pales in comparison to the environmental protection they provide for both people and wildlife. The mangroves create a windbreak for structures during hurricanes and tropical storms. Without them, storm damage could exponentially magnify. While providing a safe harbor for humans, literally and figuratively, they do the same for wildlife. Many valuable gamefish, such as tarpon and bonefish, find asylum within the mangrove’s network of roots. The sanctuary provides protection for newly spawned fish to grow away from predators, thus allowing for a higher rate of them to develop into maturity. Additionally, mangroves can filter seawater, and some studies have even shown mangroves to reduce dreaded algae blooms that have plagued Florida waters in recent years. These important topics need to be taught in order to highlight the importance of environmental preservation. It is easy to dismiss something as just being scenic, but it is much harder to do so when understanding the deeper value that its existence provides.
Steve Roden, the co-chairman of the GHOF, expressed his intention for this collaboration with FLVS to provide students with the context of how interaction with the environment can result in a domino effect — either in a good or bad way. This holistic approach to understanding environmental science will help inform students’ perception of the environment around them and cultivate a sense of critical thinking by engaging with ideas on cause and effect.
This idea is also reflected by Dr. Louis Algaze, the President and CEO of FLVS, when he said, “It’s important that students learn the environmental challenges that impact our marine environment. The Environmental Science Featuring the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation course will teach students how to protect the world’s biodiversity, about the research scientists are doing and the practical strategies they can use to preserve our marine resources.”
Teaching students about mangroves might seem like a boring subject, but the infusion of compelling photography capturing exotic fish and fast-paced videography of sharks and billfish is a worthwhile contribution to the preservation of the Florida ecological system. Compounded with Guy Harvey’s award-winning art, this otherwise dense subject matter is portrayed in a fun and exciting way. Hopefully, this new way of proliferating information will inspire both students and teachers to learn more about the marine ecosystem.