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Science is for everyone at GTM

Dec 16, 2019 | Guana Tolomato Matanzas, Florida, Informed Citizens, Reserves

Thanks to NERRS programs, educators and students can sign “estuary” and other coastal science terms. All photos courtesy of the GTM Reserve.

Every year, nearly 250,000 people enjoy the dynamic landscapes of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Research Reserve. Some come to learn, others to fish, and many more to simply enjoy being in one of the most beautiful places in Florida. But that’s not enough for the Friends of the GTM Reserve or Josie Spearman, the Reserve’s education coordinator. Their goal? Create opportunities for everyone to experience the Reserve and benefit from its programs.

“Almost 15 percent of residents in the greater Jacksonville area have a disability that can prevent them from experiencing GTM,” says Ellen LeRoy-Reed, executive director of the Friends of the GTM Reserve. “There are many children and adults with visual, hearing, developmental, mobility, and cognitive challenges that can make it difficult to visit our Reserve or participate in our programs.”

In response, the Friends launched GTM for All, a two-year, multi-strategy campaign to make Reserve programs and amenities more accessible and inclusive. In support of this, Spearman held a special Teachers on the Estuary (TOTE) training last summer that introduced new techniques for communicating science into local classrooms.

“I wanted to demonstrate how science can be communicated to a much wider range of audiences, regardless of their perceived challenges,” says Spearman. “This training gave teachers the tools to help students have life-changing experiences while exploring our ecosystems.”

The four-day training focused on how to interpret data for students with physical, emotional, and intellectual challenges and those who lack transportation to GTM. It introduced American Sign Language (ASL) versions of education programs that included closed captions and translators for teachers who were deaf or low-hearing, and it provided virtual reality experiences as an alternative to onsite programming. Teachers also had a chance to test water quality monitoring equipment adapted for blind or low-vision students and brainstorm how GTM could improve its education programs.

“By making these materials and resources available, the Reserve is demonstrating the kind of inclusive education that science should strive for,” said Will Clifford, one of the TOTE participants.

“Over eight years, I have visited GTM many times, with and without students,” says another participant Kathryn Hutchinson. “Through this seminar, I gained a deeper appreciation for the Reserve and its people. It led me to pursue writings about the natural world more deeply, as well as methods of scientific illustration, which are informing my work with students this year.”

The teacher training has been catalytic for the GTM Research Reserve, which recently received KultureCity’s Sensory Inclusive Certification. 

“We now view all our activities, events, and programs through the lens of accessibility and inclusivity,” says Leroy-Reed. “We want to have more ASL interpreters at more events, provide ASL training for staff and volunteers, and host more inclusive events.”

Spearman plans to build on the TOTE’s success to grow the Reserve’s virtual reality program to include content on other habitats, engage different grades, and work with a local school to adapt the program for students with autism. She envisions using “talking” water quality equipment, specialized text-to-speech equipment, and other strategies to enhance GTM’s education programs.

Partnership is key. “We are reaching out to more organizations within our community to increase inclusivity, including the Vision Education and Rehabilitation Center at Florida State College at Jacksonville,” says Spearman.

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ReservesGuana Tolomato Matanzas, FloridaScience is for everyone at GTM