When people head to Florida, it's often to visit Disney World and other theme parks. Instead, this group of students traveled to the Sunshine State to explore national state parks, where they found some thrills not on a rollercoaster, but walking through a swamp that's a popular hangout for alligators.
As part of their upper-level environmental studies class, "The Environment of South Florida," their professor, Dr. Daniel Shustack, took eight students on 10-day exploration of the Gulf Coast in January to study its ecology, human history and social resource issues.
Shustack selected the south Florida region because it provides a dynamic case study and captures - in a relatively small area - many of the things they discuss in environmental studies as they seek to understand the environment from multiple perspectives.
"It's not just a science class. We consider how humans have interacted with this landscape - both in the past and today - and why it looks the way it does," he said. "We went to see a lot of the things that we talked about in class being played out, such as issues with water and food production, changes in land use, mining, land conservation, non-profits and state agencies, and human population growth.
"The area is highly bio-diverse, compared to our own northern latitude," Shustack continued. "It's also relatively close, so we can go at a lower cost than other travel classes. I wanted to find something that we could do relatively cheaply and still go to some place where we could do and see a lot of things that we can't here in New England."
To more fully experience being in south Florida, Shustack decided the group should camp at national state parks, from Tampa down to the Florida Keys, where they stayed one, two or three nights before moving on.
One highlight of the trip was a visit to Lake Wales Ridge State Forest, which contains a number of naturally functioning ecosystems and many of Florida's rare and endangered plants and animals.
The area, said Shustack, is in "high peril." Due to citrus development for orange juice, much of the habitat was lost. "We spent a day exploring this Lake Wales Ridge, looking at the scrub habitats and some rare species."
The group ended the week in Big Cypress National Preserve (see photo, above), located just north of Everglades National Park. There, they met up with a national park service range to wander through its cypress domes - depressions filled with water, cypress trees and often alligators.
Shustack hopes his students gained a greater appreciation and understanding of the gems to be found in Florida, and also that they think about the conservation of resources.
"When they are thinking about their future road trips and vacations, I want them to think about what they can see - that this is something they can do on their own," he explained. "They know how set up tents and cook camp food, and how to go to parks and make contacts with rangers.
"I wanted to give them a vision for their future. There are all sorts of cool things they can see and do. It just doesn't have to be a class with some professor. They can experience it on their own at other times."