Senior biology major Amber Evers beamed as she picked up a non-venomous water snake and held it in her hands, feeling the dry scales.
She found the snake on the edge of Lake Okeechobee during a field trip with nine other students enrolled in the Natural History of the Everglades Watershed course.
“It’s great to get out in the field and work rather than just sit in a classroom,” Evers said.
Instead of sleeping in on a recent Saturday morning, Evers and her classmates jumped on a boat early in the morning to explore the Kissimmee River, observe dozens of alligators and birds and collect water samples from the river and Lake Okeechobee, about an hour and a half northwest of PBA’s campus.
Taught by Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Tom Chesnes, the senior-level class takes an in-depth look at the aquatic ecosystems of the Everglades watershed, particularly through four field trips to various South Florida wetlands and aquatic management facilities.
“The field trips reinforce what we talk about in class and allow students to see differences that exist between different aquatic systems,” said Chesnes, the 2015 recipient of the Charles and Hazel Corts Award for Outstanding Teaching. “They can then think about why values are different.”
Students first visited Riverwoods Field Lab, an environmental educational and research facility owned by South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), and saw first-hand results of the ongoing Kissimmee River Restoration Project. The project was created to restore water flow to the river and backfill the C-38 canal, a historic channel originally dug out for flood control in the 1960s and '70s that resulted in drastic ecological losses.
Located in Lorida, Florida, Riverwoods offers study trips for high school and college students to observe the wetland ecosystem and take measurements or samples as part of class. After the boat trip, the class headed to Lake Okeechobee, where they waded through water to collect more samples alongside birds and other animals.
For biology major Kyle Holly, the field trip created a greater picture of scientific research in the community.
“Every time we come here, we’re part of a long-term study,” he said. “Our actions allow for people to use baseline data for future studies with birds and water samples we collect.”
He’s right. The diversity and number of birds students documented will be sent to Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab eBird website. Back on campus, students will test the quality of the water samples to compare those collected in the river’s restored and channelized sections and the Lake Okeechobee area.
Mosa Molapo, a senior from South Africa, also says the best classroom includes fresh air and a confirmation of concepts.
“Being here is more impactful than opening a book and reading about it,” Molapo said. “Seeing is believing for some people, so when they see it, (theories) sink in a lot more. The difference for me is theoretical as opposed to practical.”
Evers agrees. She’s convinced one cannot truly understand a situation until they’re face-to-face with it – especially if it means holding that little water snake.
“We’re out here learning about what the state of Florida initially did to (the river), and about what we’re doing to restore it now," she said.
What else will the Everglades class discover? Only time will tell, but with three field trips left – including a weekend lab experience in Everglades National Park – they’re eager to find out.