Regina Bale is making waves in Southwest Florida K-12 schools thanks to The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University.
The environmental education coordinator in FGCU’s Center for Environment and Society has developed several comprehensive lesson plans based on The Water School’s research. By designing K-12 curriculums specific to the five-county area, Bale hopes to empower local teachers and benefit their students.
Field trips are often cost-prohibitive for K-12 teachers, she says, which is why her lesson plans use schoolyards. “Whether you work at a conservancy or your school is a converted Kmart, if you have a parking lot or a patch of grass, you can do these lessons and activities,” she says.
Bale earned an elementary education bachelor’s degree in 2009 and a master’s in curriculum and instruction, educational technology in 2022 at FGCU. She learned about quadrat sampling in one of instructor Chad Evers’ ecology courses. Using a square plastic frame, or quadrat, they identified and recorded a variety of plants and insects in a defined area. By focusing on a small sampling, scientists estimate species populations to better understand biodiversity in a larger area.
Bale created a lesson plan from this research technique and brought it to a group of environmental science teachers from Collier County high schools. Using a schoolyard, they identified two plant species within a quadrat on the ground. (She says a Hula-Hoop or ropes could easily, and cheaply, replace the plastic quadrat she uses.)
A one-page printed handout had an introduction to the activity, a QR code to an Esri software survey managed by FGCU, a map of the area and a data collection table to be completed by participants. Using their phones to connect to Esri’s Survey123 (which schools can access through their districts), Bale had the teachers record the type and quantity of plants. They had an estimate of flora around the school before they returned to the classroom, where they discussed the results and how teachers could engage students.
“K-12 students might ask themselves, ‘Do we have the right amount of biodiversity on our campus?’ They might discover they’d like to have more biodiversity, but they also have to balance it as a place of school and business. I want everyone to see those connections between the human systems we’ve built and the nature all around us,” Bale says.
Ryan Westberry, secondary science coordinator for Collier County Public Schools, worked with Bale when she was a science teacher in the district. Westberry describes her as a “teacher’s teacher” whose background as a K-12 educator helps her bridge the gap between university research and practical classroom applications.
“The most exciting thing about the curriculum is that these lessons empower teachers to use their campus as a field trip site to collect data,” says Westberry. “The addition of GIS [geographic information system software] and Regina’s support in getting our teachers accustomed to using the Survey123 for ‘wild’ data collection and analysis back in the classroom is awesome.”
Having multiple school districts work from the same map using the GIS component will allow staff at The Water School to compare the biodiversity at one high school to another or one district’s data to another. Lee and Collier students have started data collection, and Bale would like to work more with Charlotte, Glades and Hendry counties to get a five-county picture of biodiversity. “That’s exciting because it’s how a real ecologist would look at a region,” says Bale.
Her custom lesson plans directly extend FGCU research and blend complex scientific concepts with engaging teaching strategies. She hopes her lesson plans and trainings have an impact on science education — and curiosity — in Southwest Florida’s public schools. She expects the ripple effect of The Water School’s research to shape a more sustainable future for this area.
“Not only will the teachers get this information, but their students will, and hopefully, their parents and families and communities get it as well,” Bale says. “FGCU is Southwest Florida’s regional university, and The Water School is a college of natural resources. Our connective thread is water, but water touches all these different earth and biological systems. We want to share information and the tools and techniques that we use, and we need the teachers and students in the region to get on board collecting data and analyzing it for their community.”
For more information about educator training through the Center for Environment and Society at The Water School, visit its website.