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March 22, 2019

New Water School, new approach to issues facing Florida

Many people live, work and play in Florida because of the water, but as water quality declines, leading business sectors – from tourism to agriculture, from recreation to real estate – suffer regularly from devastating losses.

Situated in the midst of critical freshwater and saltwater systems, FGCU scholars are uniquely positioned to take on these pressing issues and develop comprehensive solutions. Building on two decades of proven academic excellence in water-related research and initiatives — as well as in business, health and engineering — the university officially launched The Water School with a March 22 event based at FGCU’s Vester Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station in Bonita Springs.

The new school brings disciplines from across campus together to focus on one subject: water.

“Philosophically, a couple of years ago, we as an institution started looking in the mirror and asking the question: What are we going to be known for?” says Robert Gregerson, dean of FGCU’s College of Arts & Sciences. “What are we going to be really great at? One of the ideas that coalesced was this idea of The Water School, as a shining example of how we do all the things that impact our greater community, allow us to do cutting-edge research and scholarship, and train students, and be an integral part of our greater community.

With 400 acres of protected habitat and a continuing commitment to buildings certified for sustainability, FGCU is already a living environmental lab with award-winning initiatives in education, energy production, research and sustainable practices that make it one of the nation’s greenest campuses.

“It’s the perfect place to develop a new school dedicated to developing a comprehensive understanding of water problems that also moves beyond traditional boundaries to develop solutions,” Gregerson says.

In addition to the college’s Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences, The Water School will draw in disciplines including engineering, economics, education, healthcare, arts and humanities, psychology, sociology, physics and chemistry.

“This is not a science solution to our water problems,” says FGCU President Mike Martin. “This is a university solution. The Water School is a cross-cutting, interdisciplinary activity that integrates across every unit in the university. It’s not just about the water – it’s what the water enables us to do. It’s about an integrated opportunity for us to think about water and health, water and policy, water and economics, water and engineering. It’s about something that brings the entire region together and impacts every element of our lives.”

The Water School will encompass existing bachelor’s degrees in environmental studies, environmental geology and marine science as well as master’s degrees in environmental science and environmental studies.

One difference between the FGCU school and that of other institutions is that much of the research will focus on watershed issues, says Greg Tolley, professor of marine sciences, who will lead the effort. An inaugural faculty member and founding director of the Coastal Watershed Institute at FGCU, Tolley has been instrumental in developing programs as chairman of the Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences.

“The University of South Florida is blue water. The University of Miami is blue water,” he says. “We’re focused on the connection of that drop of water that hits the landscape, that gets changed as it comes down through our local watersheds and ends up on the Continental Shelf, in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Water School researchers will focus on five major themes:

  • Climate change;
  • Restoration and remediation – for example, oyster reef restoration and seagrass planting;
  • Human health – including ciguatera and mercury poisoning and the effects of red tide and blue-green algae on humans;
  • Natural resources, which include fisheries, mangrove forests, beaches and seagrass beds;
  • Ecosystem integrity – looking at ways to maintain healthy ecosystems.

Plans for The Water School include:

  • State-of-the-art facilities housed in the proposed Integrated Watershed and Coastal Studies Building – 116,000 square feet of space for bench and laboratory courses that will serve as a comprehensive center of STEM activity and will help solve Florida’s water problems.
  • New funding for scholarships, fellowships, symposiums and more that will attract and retain the best and brightest students, fellows and faculty.

The success of The Water School will hinge on FGCU’s ability to secure an additional $20 million in funding from individuals, corporations, foundations and the state of Florida to expand the university’s infrastructure, establish scholarships and fellowships and realign new and current graduate and undergraduate programs within the school, says Martin.

“More and more people are recognizing the importance of the integration of water into the lifestyle here in Southwest Florida,” he says. “We’re seeing it in local initiatives and we’re seeing it in the state legislature. The time is right for the community to invest in solutions to our water problems and FGCU is uniquely positioned to lead the way.”