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Environmental education program at UNF provides unique nature experience for children

children in UNF preserve

For the students in Alessandra Camejo’s first-grade class, a recent field trip to UNF’s Sawmill Slough Preserve not only introduced them to plants and animals they had never seen before, but also broadened their perspective of the world.
"It was amazing hearing a first-grader make a connection between our world and an animal’s world, and the effects we could have on their habitat," Camejo said explaining that 6- and 7-year-olds typically only understand a personal or individual cause and effect.

"Visiting the UNF nature trail has made my students more conscious of the world around them including animals and their habitat," she said.

The field trip was one of hundreds each year at the University of North Florida hosted by UNF’s Eco Adventure, which provides nature experiences for students on campus, as well as experiential education for youth throughout the Northeast Florida community. Camejo’s class trip was one of many made possible through the STEAM Cultural Passport, a Duval County Public School program that provides federally funded grants for students in Title 1 elementary schools to attend field trips. The program supports learning in the areas of science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics. The funding enables students to visit places and engage in activities that they otherwise may never have an opportunity to experience. UNF’s Eco Adventure, part of the Campus Recreation Department, was selected as one of the partners for the program.

In January and February, 650 students attended field trips at UNF through STEAM funding. They also received a special bonus — a recently released hardbound book, ”A Home for Ozzie.” The book follows the UNF mascot, Ozzie the Osprey, as he looks for a home and interacts with other animals along the way — animals that are alive and well on UNF’s campus. For the Merrill Road Elementary students, the visit started with a narration of the book by Eco Adventure staff using some pretty convincing voices of the animals.

After that, the students and teachers talked about the book, then headed out to the trails. Quietly winding through the preserve behind then-ranger Jake FitzRoy, the students looked for the characters in the book — and found a few. There were the red-bellied turtles and lots of birds. "I learned that the yellow [golden] mouse builds their nest up high in the tree," said Barry, one of the first-graders.

Environmental education is nothing new to the University of North Florida. The year after the University opened its doors, Dr. Robert Loftin, a philosophy professor and ornithologist, began work to develop a trail system to enable exploration of the preserve. Loftin held outdoor adventure trips and the Campus Recreation Department started renting canoes out to students. Loftin even made a recording to guide elementary school groups through the preserve. Visiting classes would check out a cassette recorder with tapes that would walk them through the red maple boardwalk trail. In 1993, the natural trails were named in honor of Loftin. (The Preserve was officially designated the Sawmill Slough Preserve in 2006 by President John A. Delaney.)

John Golden, another early pioneer at UNF, was the first park ranger of the nature trails and developed the first official environmental education program on campus. According to Becky Purser, director of recreation, Golden built a strong relationship with local schools and created the first tours led by a ranger. Fittingly, the rustic environmental education pavilion on campus is named for Golden.

"Environmental education has really always been part of our recreational offerings,” said Purser who believes UNF’s natural environment is the perfect venue to teach the next generation about nature. "John [Golden] used to say 'We’re going to be a little green oasis in a sea of concrete,'" Purser said. "Preserving what we have here is important. It’s the ideal outdoor classroom to help children understand the significance of the environment, and we’ve tried to build on that."

Amy Costa, assistant director of Eco Adventure, said the STEAM field trips were part of the much larger education program at UNF that engages students throughout the region on a daily basis. Every day, staff lead field trips for public and private schools throughout the Northeast Florida region and beyond.

About 5,000 K – 8 students come to UNF every year for field trips that are designed for specific age groups and interests: Nature’s Detectives, Backyard Botany, A Home for Ozzie (highlighting animal habitat based on the book), Colors and Shapes, Insects and Others, Wild Neighborhoods and Nature’s Narratives. Rangers engage the students in hands-on learning. On the trails, rangers stop every few feet to point out something new and use the opportunity to build environmental awareness.
"The students love it and are always engaged," Costa said. "They leave with a greater respect and appreciation for their world. It’s an honor, really, to help facilitate that."

Eco Adventure also offers leadership and teambuilding programs for businesses, nonprofits, clubs and other groups on its popular ropes course, the Osprey Challenge Course. And UNF students no longer have to rent canoes — thanks to an effort spearheaded by Student Government almost a decade ago. Eco Adventure now offers free gear checkout for students at the University including everything from kayaks and canoes to paddleboards, tents and backpacks.

The trails are also open to the public 365 days a year from sunrise to sunset.

"A Home for Ozzie" is a children’s book that chronicles the adventures of UNF’s mascot, Ozzie the Osprey, while highlighting the beauty and significance of the Sawmill Slough Preserve and the animals who live there. The book was written by Amy Costa, Eco Adventure assistant director and Jake FitzRoy, former environmental education coordinator, and illustrated by Vernon Payne, UNF graphic designer.

Books are available for purchase at Proceeds go to further environmental education at UNF.