Nurturing the next generation of Audubon Advocates for the Indian River Lagoon

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
September 2015

Is our Indian River Lagoon healthy? NO! What can we do? Pelican Island Audubon wants to educate the public about the Lagoon’s environmental issues so they will appreciate its beauty and value, and work with the community to protect its fisheries, marine life, birds, wildlife, ecosystems and our future. Many parents and kids today are not comfortable with nature because they haven’t had direct experiences. This deficit affects their health, behavior, and well being, and narrows their lives.  Through education and appreciation we want kids to be champions for lagoon restoration. Let’s get kids out of the house, out of the classroom and into nature. We have lost two generations to Nature Deficit Disorder!

Our new Audubon House is the perfect place for an expanded lagoon science-education program, surrounded by the 440-acre Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area and the campus of University of Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory (FMEL), all of this adjacent to the Indian River Lagoon.

Our History in Outdoor Education:
Partnering with FMEL for 18 years, Audubon has successfully run adult environmental-stewardship classes to train volunteers to serve as naturalists and stewards of our county’s conservation areas.  Since 2012, we have also reached out effectively to elementary, middle- and charter-school students and their teachers through our ‘square-foot’ garden program at 12 schools. 

In our first summer camp at Audubon House, we teamed with Kristen and Mike Beck of A Florida Outdoor Center (A FLOC) for five weeks of daily sessions of day camps. We were funded by a $5,000 grant from the Indian River Community Foundation, which provided 36 scholarships to underserved students. The students explored the lagoon by kayak and canoe, learned basic science, outdoor and boating skills, immersed in natural surroundings. They had lessons in safe and responsible boating practices, learned where water comes from, how water gets polluted, and about the vital importance of lagoon sustainability and thus marine conservation, and how this is all connected to our quality of life. The students experienced the lagoon firsthand, observed Brown Pelicans nesting on the island rookery, dolphins jumping, seagrasses covered with algae, stingrays, and a variety of small fish in our “Oslo Nursery!” By seining seagrass beds, they learned that fishes, like the gamefishes, snook and sea trout, and even a seahorse, depend on healthy seagrass to survive! How enthusiastic they were, learning to fish.

New Project: Audubon Advocates for the Indian River Lagoon
PIAS Board member Bonnie Swanson, with an $18,000 Impact 100 grant and additional member donations, is excited to be creating a truly innovative, hands-on, outdoor after-school learning program that teaches lagoon science and conservation to students from underprivileged schools. From our summer camp, we believe strongly the outdoor experiences on the water will inspire youngsters to become the explorers, scientists, future educators and conservationists so needed in our community. Teachers at four south County Title 1 elementary schools will recommend students for their interest in science and academic excellence. We especially hope to inspire low-income, minority and female students to participate in science and conservation by exposing them to scientist role models (a key component enthusiastically identified by all four schools) and exciting activities.

Bonnie’s selected teachers (Kimberly Slade, Coordinator, Rebecca Marr, Teresa Baird, Alex Scott, including a journalist teacher, Susan Lovelace, and artist Elise Carter) have been planning an outstanding 2-hour after-school program. Leah Blyth LoPresti will select two Charter High School students as mentors for each day. They’ll gain training and experience working with younger students. The teachers plan to provide other classroom teachers with training and resources to enhance lagoon science learning in their own classrooms.

The teachers are excited about these truly life-changing, lagoon-changing experiences that will transform our children, our teachers, our community, and the environment that sustains us all.  We will share some of the same summer camp activities plus sketching and writing about plants and creatures observed. In the Audubon classroom kids will learn about climate change, oil spills, fish kills and water-quality degradation, then go outside to make physical contact with nature. It is this hands–on, outdoors experience that is important to encourage children to become the watchdogs and champions of our environment, so vital to our human survival. We need a bus driver ($15/hour) and volunteers to assist teachers with the kids, please contact our Pelican Island Audubon office at or call us at 772-567-3520.

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