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New Public-Private Partnership Offers Hands-On Learning About Climate Change, Watersheds and Pollution for Hillsborough County Students

The Florida Aquarium's 'Watershed Investigations' brings fifth graders from 10 schools to new Florida Conservation and Technology Center in Apollo Beach for citizen science

Fifth-graders from 10 Title I schools in Hillsborough County are becoming citizen scientists through a new program designed to help increase their science literacy and give them an opportunity to learn more about freshwater, brackish and saltwater habitats by getting their hands dirty and feet wet. More 


Photo/Video Op Invitation to Media: See Watershed Investigations in Action

Media are invited to see the program, Watershed Investigations, in action when students from DeSoto Elementary School make their next field trip to the Florida Conservation and Technology Center in Apollo Beach.

When: 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 11

Where: 505 Elsberry Road, Apollo Beach, Fla., 33572 (Please note: the official address where we will be meeting is 505 Elsberry Road, but the mailbox for the center is 529 Elsberry, so please look for the mailbox with 529. Elsberry is a small side road. The center is between two small bridges and the manatee viewing center and Apollo Beach Elementary (across the canal that is next to the elementary school).

RSVP: RSVP required. Media interested in joining should RSVP to Nadine Slimak at 239-339-7914 or


The Florida Aquarium's Watershed Investigations Program introduces Hillsborough County students to scientific investigation, watersheds, climate change and pollution.
Photo copyright The Florida Aquarium.
moreThe program - Watershed Investigations - was developed and is being led by The Florida Aquarium and is funded through grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Program partners include Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Tampa Electric Company (TECO), Hillsborough County Public Schools, Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Gulf of Mexico Alliance and the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association (GCOOS-RA), which will host the data that the students gather.


Through the program, fifth graders take two field trips each school year to the Florida Conservation and Technology Center in Apollo Beach, where they explore and gather data about fresh and saltwater habitats and animals and learn how they change over time, said Debbi Stone, Vice President of Education at The Florida Aquarium. "Ages 9, 10 and 11 are the perfect time for students to begin learning how to analyze data and predict changes - they're starting to think critically and this program is designed to show them how to put those skills to work in a real-world setting."


The 480-acre Center features mangroves, oyster beds, sea grasses and other key coastal watershed ecosystems with native flora and fauna, as well as freshwater systems and upland characteristics - giving the kids an opportunity to explore all these systems, said Ashley Sutherland, Program Instructor. "Having all these elements together will allow us to explore many aspects of environmental health with the students. We'll be looking at air and watershed pollution and weather and talk about their impacts on the environment. We'll also have the opportunity to explore different climate zones and discuss the impacts that climate change will have."


The students will also be gathering data on things like water pH, salinity, turbidity and look for pollutants. In the process, they'll be learning what scientists test for and why, Sutherland said. And because Watershed Investigations is a multi-year program, students will also be able to see what changes from year-to-year.


One of the most important aspects of the program will be collecting the data that the students gather over time, said Dr. Chris Simoniello, Director of Outreach and Education for the GCOOS-RA. GCOOS provides a one-stop-shop online portal for environmental data gathered by scientists and citizen scientists from all Gulf of Mexico states so that it is broadly available for anyone who needs it. "We hope this will be a model for citizen science initiatives throughout the Gulf of Mexico," Simoniello said. "Gulf-wide, citizens' groups are gathering data about their regions and that's great. But if the data isn't widely available, it can't help when the unexpected happens. For instance, after an oil spill, resource managers must restore habitats that were damaged. But without good baseline information about what a particular habitat looked like before a disaster, it's impossible to do good, science-based restoration. Citizen science initiatives like The Florida Aquarium's Watershed Investigations program can go a long way to remedying that situation."


The Hillsborough County Schools Participating in the project are:
  • Summerfield Elementary
  • Summerfield Crossings Elementary
  • Ruskin Elementary
  • Thompson Elementary
  • Reddick Elementary
  • Metropolitan Ministries Partnership
  • Cypress Creek Elementary
  • DeSoto Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Philip Shores Elementary
A blue crab. Photo copyright The Florida Aquarium.
The Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association is a 501(c)3 organization responsible for developing a network of business leaders, marine scientists, resource managers, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholder groups that combine their data to provide timely information about our oceans  - similar to the information gathered by the National Weather Service to develop weather forecasts. Visit us online at

GCOOS, which includes members from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, seeks to establish a sustained observing system for the Gulf of Mexico to provide observations and products needed by users in this region for:
  • Detecting and predicting climate variability and consequences,
  • Preserving and restoring healthy marine ecosystems,
  • Ensuring human health,
  • Managing resources,
  • Facilitating safe and efficient marine transportation,
  • Enhancing national security, and
  • Predicting and mitigating against coastal hazards.

Copyright � 2015, Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association. All rights reserved.