Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve’s (ANERR) Education Department has been working with Franklin County’s schools for many years, offering local students and teachers the opportunity to take advantage of the unique resources available through the Reserve.

Over the years, the types of programming offered have evolved to accommodate changes both at the Reserve and in schools.

All programs led by the education staff at the Reserve share the common goal of promoting stewardship through increased awareness and understanding of the estuary ecosystem. Since moving into the new Eastpoint facility in 2011, the Reserve has implemented a slate of educational, hands-on programs designed to build upon one another as the students advance and mature. The close-knit nature of Franklin County provides a unique opportunity for every student in pre-K, first, third, fifth and seventh grades to participate each year in standards-aligned ANERR education programs that focus on the ecology Apalachicola Bay and its value to the community. Tenth-grade biology students also return for a final program designed to fit their biology curriculum.

The programs start in pre-K with a hermit crab activity that includes a reading of House for Hermit Crab and a live demonstration of how hermit crabs change their shells. While the pre-K program is conducted in the classroom, the programs for all other grade levels are conducted at the facility or in the field.

First graders are introduced to ANERR through a guided tour of the Nature Center and a beach wrack line scavenger hunt. In the third grade, the activities become more scientific with the dissection of oyster clumps to see what other species use the reef for habitat. Third graders also do a seining activity to look for and catalog juvenile species in the bay.

Fifth graders return to the reserve to plant a living shoreline and learn how the marsh grass (Spartina alterniflora) they have planted to reduce erosion is adapted to living in the harsh environment of the bayside beach. In seventh grade, the students go back out into the marsh to see the fruits of their labor, counting periwinkle snails living on the marsh grasses and discovering the food web that the snails represent in the shoreline habitat that they created in fifth grade.

Students visit the reserve for their last program in the 10th grade. This time, they return to oysters with the focus on spat (juvenile oysters) settlement on different types of substrate. The students count living oysters on three different types of substrate that were put out in the bay 10 months earlier. After discussing oyster anatomy and lifecycle, the data collected from the data-loggers in the bay helps students come up with hypotheses on why they found more oysters or fewer oysters on the substrates than in previous years, and what their findings might mean for the health of the entire bay.

No mention of our education programs would be complete without a special “thank you” to Friends of the Reserve. For over 15 years, the Friends group has been helping local schools bring field trips to the reserve by providing funding for transportation and substitute teachers. Without their help our school programs would not be possible.

To learn more, visit http://apalachicolareserve.com/.

Gibby Conrad is education specialist at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve