Blue School grant delivers hands-on learning in the great outdoors

Alicia Pressel believes she has made her greatest impact on some students in the great outdoors, not the classroom.

Student taking a sample of water from a river
Students from Creekside High School collect water samples as part of their Blue School Grant Program project during the 2019–2020 school year.

Pressel is a teacher at Creekside High School in St. Johns County. The school offers a Career Academy Program focusing on engineering and environmental science, but she admits that it can be a challenge to make environmental science attractive to students.

Thanks to the St. Johns River Water Management District’s Blue School Grant Program, Pressel has been able to transport her students from the confines of the classroom to the great wild open of Florida’s natural world. Here, tomorrow’s environmental scientists are conducting water quality tests and expanding their knowledge about the state’s water resources.

The mission of the Blue School Grant Program is for students to develop an appreciation for Florida’s waters, an understanding of the limited nature of Florida’s water and a water ethic that they can foster through their lifetime. The program is open to 6th through 12th grade public and charter schoolteachers within the District’s 18 counties.

Pressel has received Blue School funding twice (including the 2019–2020 school year) and says the $2,000 grants enabled her to provide her students with hands-on learning as they sampled water quality at Alpine Groves and Rivertown parks in St. Johns County and the District’s Julington Durbin Preserve in Duval County.

“My overall goal with the Career Academy Program is to get students into the field and help them make the connection with our water resources,” Pressel says. “I designed the programs so that students who participated in the Blue School Grant Program the first year could serve as role models to the younger students the second year. This allowed the students to participate and become teachers as well. When students are teachers, they learn a lot themselves.”

Although it may seem surprising, many students had never visited these public lands until they were enrolled in the Career Academy, Pressel says.

“It was an eye-opener for the students to see how the District managed Julington-Durbin,” she says. “Alpine Groves provided a wonderful opportunity for us to talk about the impacts of hurricanes and the erosion they cause along the shoreline of the St. Johns River.”

Pressel designed her four-year program so that students are encouraged to use their data to tell stories and share their work with one another through apps such as iNaturalist. More recently, Pressel offered her students the opportunity to apply service-learning by collaborating with middle school students at nearby Freedom Crossing Academy.

Students standing on a wooden bridge in a district property
During the 2019–2020 school year, St. Johns County teacher Alicia Pressel used part of her Blue School Grant from the District to get her students out into nature, where they expanded their knowledge of the Florida’s water resources.

“Making connections with one another is what matters to the students,” Pressel says. “Hopefully, the seventh- and eighth-graders will come in and join the Career Academy based on what they’ve learned from the older students in the program.”

Pressel is an ardent supporter of service learning and non-traditional, hands-on applications that can be used later in life.

“Working in the field can be more meaningful to the students,” she says. “When they’re sampling water in the St. Johns River or one of its tributaries, they’re given the autonomy to make mistakes and build their skills. Without the Blue School Grant, we wouldn’t have had the funds to visit other locations in the community and compare ecosystems in the campus and in the community.”

Pressel encourages teachers within the District’s boundaries to apply for a Blue School Grant.

“I wish more people would maximize their potential with partners in the county,” Pressel says. “I think that a lot of teachers may not know the opportunities are there. The District provides a wealth of educational resources and does a lot for our community so that we can enhance those opportunities for students.”

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