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From the classroom to the field: Sea Grant transforms environmental education in Puerto Rico

From the classroom to the field: Sea Grant transforms environmental education in Puerto Rico

By: Miguel G. Figuerola-Hernández, 2017 Sea Grant Knauss Fellow from Puerto Rico Sea Grant

Background:
Environmental education has become a staple of high school curriculum throughout the nation. As changes in ecosystem configuration and services impact socioeconomic systems, it is imperative that new generations learn from past tendencies and environmental trends adapt towards a sustainable future. “Textbooks and classroom-based lectures all too often overlook local species and issues affecting the nearest ecosystems” Affirms Shirley Droz, a school teacher from Puerto Rico who recognizes the need for place-based education to engage students in conservation efforts.

Puerto Rico Sea Grant educator, Angela Ferra, gives a lecture about field instruments to measure meteorological factors like wind speed, temperature, barometric pressure, and sun irradiance. Photo credit: Puerto Rico Sea Grant

In Puerto Rico, a Caribbean U.S. Territory, the Puerto Rico Sea Grant program developed an environmental curriculum focused around local ecosystems. “The guides focus on the mangrove forest, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. They were completed approximately over a period of four and a half years. Sea Grant staff wrote them and scientific experts reviewed them based on the covered disciplines.” stated Delmis Alicea, Puerto Rico Sea Grant curriculum and evaluation specialist.

These guides include a background on the respective subject, a reference version for the teacher, field and laboratory based activities (along with a DVD), and the daily planning procedure necessary to carry out the activities. Aligned with the standards required by the Department of Education of Puerto Rico, the guides facilitate the insertion of these coastal environmental themes in the classroom in both private and public schools. Sea Grant staff also train teachers through workshops on how to best use these guides, further building capacity in schools. The guides merge classroom lectures and activities with guided field trips where students have the chance to apply the local knowledge they have attained through real-world observations.

Puerto Rico Sea Grant educator, Hector Martínez, explains the difference between algae and turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum), an important foundation species in the Caribbean. Students take notes in preparation for diagnostic tests as part of the environmental education curriculum. Photo credit: Puerto Rico Sea Grant

The Impact:
In 2016, Sea Grant staff trained about 205 teachers, which reached 38,882 students who benefited from the curriculum (endorsed by the Department of Education of Puerto Rico). Public and private schools, as well as homeschooling parents, are using the guides with students ranging from elementary to high school, and have demonstrated a high level of learning as evidenced by the assessments contained in the guides. As part of the courses’ final grades, teachers reported that the guides provide a fundamental framework for introducing younger students to the scientific method in a fun way. “I created a Marine Sciences course in my school so students learned the importance of coastal ecosystems. Sea Grant guides and workshops have made students talk about what they learned with other classmates who will be enrolling in the elective course next year!” proudly stated Chardmary Rodriguez who implements the curriculum in an elective course she created.

The implementation of the guidelines began with a pilot study that was carried out in 12 schools in Puerto Rico, including schools in municipalities from the central part of the island. “When I was in Las Marías, I realized how important the guides where to show Puerto Rico’s coastal ecosystems to students from the central part of the island. In addition, my students are choosing marine topics for their science fair projects” acknowledged Brenda Estévez, who has collaborated with Sea Grant in testing and implementing the guides. This pilot study has been followed by multi-agency collaboration and increased demand.

Brenda Estévez, a high school teacher, reported that many of her 9th grade students choose marine related topics for their science fair projects after learning about the importance of marine ecosystems through the improved curriculum. Photo credit: Brenda Estévez

Future Expectations:
The results of the program have a fundamental long-term resilience goal of achieving behavioral changes towards public engagement in conservation and sustainable use of coastal resources. This effort serves the education goals of multiple agencies, such as NOAA, the University of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Department of Education, and the local Department of Natural Resources. “In addition to resource management, we need education to understand and promote the conservation and sustainable use of coastal resources. Education won’t replace management, but it is a necessary investment”, affirms Ruperto Chaparro, Director of the Puerto Rico Sea Grant Program.

Communications with other Latin American nations like the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico are underway to share ideas on how to implement this model in their schools. An additional a guide focused on climate change is currently in progress.

"We have been successful and we want more schools to join us," says Delmis Alicea Segarra, program manager and evaluation specialist.

Puerto Rico Sea Grant educator, Jeffry Morales, shows students how to identify the button mangrove (Conocarpus erectus) in the field. Photo credit: Puerto Rico Sea Grant

These guides where created thanks to Delmis Alicea, who coordinated the pilot study and solicited input from scientists. Spanish guides are available on the Internet, free of cost, on the Puerto Rico Sea Grant website. The guides are also being translated into English. For more information, you can call (787) 834-4726, (787) 832-3585 or (787) 832-8045, or write to delmis.alicea@upr.edu.

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