On an unusually cold day during the spring semester, Ahmad Marar carefully leaned off a boat’s stern to gather water samples from the St. Johns River. The samples would later be analyzed for nutrient levels, salinity and pesticides, granting Marar and a group of University of North Florida students a glimpse into the current status of the river and the challenges facing its health.
The students were part of the St. Johns River Transformational Learning Opportunity (TLO) at UNF. It’s not a traditional class, but rather a focused learning experience for students, which includes a weekly one-credit lab and culminates in an eight-day spring break trip along the river’s middle basin. Students participating in the course come from a variety of disciplines. While some may very well end up in careers focused on sustainability, the common thread of those participating is to learn as much as they can about the river to keep it strong.
“I fish off the St. Johns River and wanted to get to know more about it and what we can do to protect it,” said Marar, who graduated in May with a degree in biology.
The lab is taught by Dr. Rick Troendle, a UNF chemistry professor. The classroom component focuses on both the ecology of the river and its historical and cultural impact on the region, while the river itself offers a number of fun, hands-on learning opportunities like canoeing and boating. During the spring break trip, students interact with historians, locals living on the river and even artists who draw inspiration from the St. Johns, giving them a greater appreciation of the resource and how it shapes the lives of thousands in Northeast Florida.
“While a big part of the TLO is learning as much as we can about the river, enjoying time on it compelled us even further to protect it,” Marar said.
The St. Johns River TLO is a product of UNF’s Environmental Center, which seeks to provide students with interactive and cross-disciplinary opportunities focused on the environment.
“The goal [of the TLO] is to educate the students so they understand a variety of complex issues related to the river and are equipped to make good decisions,” said Environmental Center Coordinator James Taylor, who also coordinates the class.
The concept of the Environmental Center originated with Dr. Ray Bowman, who was named its founding director in 2004. Bowman was a founding faculty member of the University’s Department of Natural Sciences and taught chemistry on campus until 2007.
“The Center’s core mission is really two-fold — to develop and support interdisciplinary research and to give students unique and real-world experiences,” Taylor said.
It is always looking at new opportunities to provide education and research relating to the environment —the river TLO being a good example. The Center also works with faculty to weave environmental learning into the curriculum and provides seed funding for research and projects, which often includes both graduate and undergraduate students as research assistants. Scholarships and student staff positions are also offered to scholars interested in pursuing environmentally focused careers.
The Center’s goal is to inspire and support students who want to make a difference — students such as Kevin O’Halloran, who worked with Student Government to encourage recycling at special events. Other students have become more in touch with their own personal environmental impact by picking through the trash every year for the University’s annual waste audit — Garbage on the Green. Then there are the students who worked with the Center’s staff to identify species in the Sawmill Slough Preserve.
Spreading the message of campus sustainability is perhaps the Center’s greatest accomplishment, said Dr. Radha Pyati, a chemistry professor and past director of the Environmental Center. The move toward a more environmentally aware campus came in the mid-2000s, when Pyati said UNF began participating more with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).
“UNF has done so much to organize its sustainability efforts,” Pyati said. “We went from not having much of a [AASHE] presence to having students teach workshops at national meetings about how we do things at UNF.”
In 2010, President John A. Delaney solidified UNF’s commitment to sustainability by signing the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which led to the development of the University’s first climate action plan outlining how UNF will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become carbon neutral by 2050.
Research and environmental learning
Responsibility to the natural environment is not just an area of interest at UNF — it’s a University value that spans all aspects of campus life and extends to many different academic programs. Taylor from the Environmental Center said that the steps the University has taken in recent years to educate and inspire students to pursue a more sustainable lifestyle shows a holistic approach to environmental learning.
UNF’s commitment is evident in its cross-disciplinary academic offerings, such as the Coastal Biology Flagship Program and its study and research of North Florida’s waterways and aquatic species. Located near freshwater and coastline habitats, the University is uniquely positioned to provide significant hands-on learning opportunities for biology students.
This summer, UNF participated in a joint study program with four other Florida universities in which participating students traveled from Pensacola to the Keys experiencing Florida’s diverse marine and coastal habitats for more than a month.
The College of Computing, Engineering and Construction offers classes on environmental engineering, renewable energy technology and water quality management, and Dr. J. David Lambert, the current director of the Environmental Center, has taught courses on green building and sustainable construction. That style of learning extends into the College of Arts and Sciences, where there are philosophy classes in environmental ethics and a popular history class on environmental history. The Brooks College of Health offers classes on environmental health, and the Coggin College of Business even has an economics course on the conservation of natural resources.
The Environmental Center maintains a strong relationship with local environmental groups, government agencies and environmental organizations. Lambert said the Center is regionally focused and always seeks to connect students and faculty with the community.
Pyati, the Environmental Center’s former director, participates annually in the Report on the State of the Lower St. Johns River Basin, funded for the past eight years by the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board (EPB). UNF professors, along with others from Jacksonville University and Valdosta State, play important roles in analyzing the environmental data for the report.
“We have been extremely grateful to UNF for their work,” said James Richardson, administrator of the EPB.
Richardson said the board has committed to fund the report for the next three years. The Jacksonville Environmental Symposium, co-hosted by the EPB and UNF, marks the annual release of the report on the river.
“It has been great to work with the UNF Environmental Center on several opportunities over the past few years,” Richardson said. “The EPB appreciates all the Center does to support environmental concerns — not only on the UNF campus but in the greater Jacksonville community.”
The next generation
Lambert believes that community involvement is key, which is why the Environmental Center must play a role in leadership development.
“The most important thing the Center can do is prepare students to be the next generation of environmental leaders,” Lambert said.
The Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) he helped develop does just that. It will be funded initially through the Cummer Family Foundation when it launches later this year, giving environmentally minded students an opportunity to be a project leader for at least one year. The program seeks to attract students from all disciplines and get them involved early — ideally as freshmen or sophomores — hoping they will remain engaged during their time at UNF. The students will work with community and faculty advisors to develop and implement their project.
“The bar is set high for the student project leaders.”
After all, Lambert said, these students could very well be leading the environmental dialogue in the region for years to come.
For more information about UNF’s environmental programs, visit www.unf.edu/ecenter.