May is field trip month along the Choctawhatchee Bay, and the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) brought students to the shoreline nearly every day as a culmination of the year-long Grasses in Classes program.
Starting in the fall, CBA staff and AmeriCorps NWF Environmental Stewards visit 3rd and 5th grade classrooms every month. Students not only learn about coastal ecosystems, they also learn to grow smooth cordgrass – a critical marsh plant that borders the bay and provides wildlife habitat, reduces pollution, and prevents shoreline erosion. In partnership with AmeriCorps and with partial funding from the USFWS Coastal Program and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, CBA provides teachers in Okaloosa and Walton Counties the equipment and materials required to grow shoreline grasses at their schools.
At the end of the year, these elementary schoolers come to the bay to plant their grasses in real living shoreline restoration projects. From White Point on Eglin Air Force Base, to Lincoln and Florida Parks in Valparaiso, to Charles E. Cessna Landing in Walton County and more, students enhanced the coastline with their very own hands. In addition to acting as planting locations, the parks are beautiful, and students oohed and aahed over Osprey soaring overhead and dolphins feeding in the shallows.
Field trips follow a similar arc. Students arrive at the edge of the Choctawhatchee Bay, split into groups, and participate in a loop of fun, educational environmental activities. At one station, students wade into the water to study native species in nets and a nearby touch tank. To plant the cordgrass, they use burlap bags to hold special sand, adding three cordgrass plants before carefully placing them along the water.
By planting in public parks, the new living shorelines provide opportunities for students to return to their sites as the grasses take hold, further protecting the land from erosion.
“Studies show that hands-on experiences in nature can inspire water stewardship in future generations,” says Alison McDowell, Director of CBA. “We are proud of what these students have accomplished throughout the whole year. Their work planting grasses will improve the Choctawhatchee Bay for future students as well!”
Since 2011, the Grasses in Classes program now reaches over 2,000 elementary school students in Okaloosa and Walton Counties each year, in addition to the Dunes in Schools and Spat On! curriculum for middle and high schools. This summer, CBA will bring these coastal lessons to libraries in Destin, Fort Walton, and the Walton Coastal Branch libraries in June and July. Learn more at basinalliance.org.