As a skinny freshman stepping on the UCF campus for the first day of class, my only exposure to environmental issues was sitting in my AP Environmental Science class during senior year in high school. I knew about the Clean Air Act, run-off, and alternative energy sources and thought I had a good grasp of what we faced. I decided to declare “Environmental Studies” as my major.
Almost three years later, as I look in the mirror, my reflection shows me I am about the same level of skinniness but a few things that have changed are my skin (more tan, from hours working to address the environmental issues I once read about) my smile (more self-confidence, from the experiences that have taught me that I am smart and capable of making a difference), and my shirt (one of my forty free t-shirts form UCF – it reads Alternative Spring Break). My involvement at UCF has altered my understanding of the environment and the pervasiveness of certain issues I never considered. My investment in education has evolved to appreciate the learning that occurs during “extra-curricular” activities. Each of the pursuits I dedicated my time to has enlightened me on different types of environmental issues ranging from social to scientific and how college students can start making steps to solve them.
The Experience of Environment and Education (E-3) Project was born in August 2011 as a response to the lack of environmental education in the U.S. It was my first and most direct experience in environmental education and honed my classroom teaching skills. It was implemented in two Orange County high schools. The E-3 Project accomplished two goals: exposing university students to pedagogy and teaching public school students about ecological and sociological systems and sustainable principles. I collaborated with five other students in creating the inaugural lesson plans that followed Sunshine State Standards and addressed critical issues in the context of interrelated systems instead of isolated incidents. Our first topic was waste. We taught in pairs in an AP Environmental Science class. We visited schools weekly for six weeks and taught for a full class period using interactive discussions, hands on activities, and providing students with the tools and resources needed to create their own proposals. I ran a hands-on waste audit where we sorted through trash at their own school and demonstrated what could be reused, recycled, or minimized at production and this left the students in awe at the potential for what they could do at their own school. I was surprised at how much new ideas we taught them and how many students had their outlooks on the environment changed, despite already being in an environmentally oriented class. During our visits, the students designed their own sustainable projects that could be implemented at school and even competed to see which ones were most viable. The success of the first program based on student and teacher reviews allowed us to recruit more students and expand to another school, as well as implement a second topic, energy. The E-3 Project was recognized with 1st place at UCF’s Service-Learning Showcase in 2012 based on its impact on the community.
Last year, my experience with Alternative Spring Break opened my eyes to the issues that park rangers have maintaining a National Wildlife Refuge. Not only do they have to worry about the population and life cycles of rare animals, such as the key deer, but they must also maintain the ecosystem that the animals, as well as humans, depend on. Cutting down and dragging almost 400 invasive Australian pine trees really put into perspective the negative impact invasive species can have, but also made me realize that a small group of 9 students can make a dent in one day.
The extent of environmental issues is often clarified through research. Students have the opportunity to start answering questions as undergraduates. I independently designed and investigated the synergistic
effects of two invasive species – an aquatic plant and an apple snail – on each other and on water quality. The exotic apple snail has been shown to have taste preferences for Florida’s native plants, and could aid the aquatic plant, hydrilla, in becoming more dominant and reducing biodiversity. The apple snail’s voracious appetite also contributes to rapid nutrient releases which imbalance aquatic ecosystems and consequently endanger the health of other species. I chose this topic because little environmental research exists that examines interactive effects of individual problems and I have seen firsthand the impact of invasive species from my Alternative Spring Break trip. My research provides a scientific foundation to encourage policies that will minimize damage to Florida ecosystems, which are already suffering from changes in water quality and quantity. This experience has not only improved my scientific critical thinking skills, but has challenged me to communicate various complex ideas to the general public. Many people who understand intricate workings of systems have difficulty conveying problems and their impacts and others who excel at influencing groups have not been trained with enough scientific knowledge to accurately explain to people. My favorite part of research is when I get to educate others on the issue and what they can do – and seeing their reactions at learning something new about the community.
Another set of issues I was not aware of until arriving at UCF is the treatment of wilderness by those who go camping and backpacking. I assumed that people who enjoyed the outdoors would know how to respect it to preserve the wilderness for others and for the future. Working in the UCF Outdoor Adventure Program allowed me to learn about the Leave No Trace philosophy, which is a set of outdoor ethics designed to minimize our impacts on wild ecosystems. Not only do I get to practice this firsthand when I go on trips, but I get to educate other students from diverse majors about Leave No Trace as well which they can practice if they take their friends on trips.
My education at UCF has led me to learn about many more environmental issues, but it has also shown me a variety of solutions that students can start working on now. Students should graduate feeling that there is much to be fixed in this world and should also have the confidence that they can put their mark on the world. In one year, when I graduate, I hope to still be skinny, have at least fifty-five free UCF shirts, and to leave a lasting effect on the Unifying Theme of UCF.