UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is working with students at the College of Coastal Georgia to monitor a freshwater wetland adjacent to a local elementary school and develop educational lesson plans on wetland ecology for elementary and middle school students.

Katy Smith assists two students of Oglethorpe Elementary School in monitoring the wetlands on their school's property.

Smith (left) explains how the rain gauge monitors rainfall at the wetland.

“Freshwater wetlands in coastal regions provide important habitat and resources for wildlife as well as ecosystem services that benefit humans, like water filtration and buffering against flooding and storm surge,” said Katy Smith, water quality program coordinator at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “This project will allow us to study this habitat, learn from it and encourage stewardship of these areas for the benefit of wildlife and humans alike.”

As part of the project, which is funded by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division, Smith teamed up with College of Coastal Georgia faculty, James Deemy, lecturer of environmental science, and Amy Sneed, assistant professor, to provide experiential training for undergraduates at the college.

Deemy and Smith are working together to advise students who are pursuing a degree in science to carry out research activities at the site.

Kayla Russo, a rising senior at the College of Coastal Georgia, learned about the wetland project during her hydrology class and decided to assist with weekly monitoring.

“I was taking different water measurements, like conductivity, turbidity, and also running soil moisture transects,” said Russo, who is majoring in environmental science. “I was enjoying the stuff I was doing in-class, which was limited because we didn’t have all of the instruments, so I was able to go more in-depth through the [wetland] program.”

The baseline monitoring data on the wetland is being incorporated into lesson plans developed by senior-level teacher candidates at College of Coastal Georgia, with guidance from Sneed who coordinates middle grade and secondary education.

During the first year of the project, six lesson plans were developed that cover hydrology and soils, water chemistry, plant classification, environmental impact, and wildlife life cycles and habitat.

The lessons are being piloted by students participating in Oglethorpe Point Elementary School’s Marsh Lab program, which is led by Karen Garrett, who teaches at the school. As part of the program, Garrett works with all grade levels to take what they are learning in the classroom and apply it outdoors through interactive experiences.

Katy Smith assists students in monitoring the wetlands by their elementary school.

Garrett shows students how to measure water temperature and document the results as part of an interactive education activity.

“I take their science curriculum and make it come to life,” Garrett said. “Since they can’t do hands-on science experiments in the classroom due to time constraints, they come to me every other week and we do experiments.”

With the new lesson plans, the students are learning about topics like water clarity, amphibians, soils and trees using real data collected by the college students. They are also able to conduct experiments in the wetland using some of the research equipment, like a rain gauge, that was set up by the college students.

According to Garrett, engaging students in the natural world encourages them to use scientific inquiry, investigation and exploration to complement their science curriculum. Having the students work through lessons that are directly connected to this important habitat at their school will help foster a sense of stewardship of this natural resource.

“They’re able to see the wetland and how it can be affected by their actions, so hopefully they can take that and create ideas for future actions or create their own opinions on environmental issues,” says Garrett.

The project has also supported summer interns to carry out some of the objectives. During the summer of 2020, Samantha Lance, a rising junior at Washington University in St. Louis, created a series of teaching materials such as middle school lesson plans, educational activities about freshwater wetlands and climate change, an Instagram story and a coloring book featuring wetland plants and animals.

During the summer of 2021, Hunter Molock, a rising senior at Savannah College of Art and Design, will illustrate and design a series of educational signs to enhance the Discovery Trail at Oglethorpe Point Elementary School. The final signs will highlight wildlife, habitats and more, and will be installed during the fall of 2021.

“The overarching goal of this project is to foster appreciation and conservation of coastal freshwater wetlands,” Smith said. “We hope the resources created during the project will provide students with continuing opportunities to learn about, study and protect this important habitat.”