Embrace the Outdoors with Florida Gulf Coast University

At Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), wildlife welcomes you to campus. A mated pair of ospreys regularly stand guard in their nest atop a tower that marks the entrance to the school, one of many symbols that celebrates FGCU’s connection to the environment. The school was founded in 1997 with “land and a grand plan” and, in its 25-year history, has made it their mission to promote the interconnectedness of natural and social systems throughout campus and beyond. When I was searching for graduate programs, that’s what really drew my attention-the acknowledgement that every social action could be viewed through an environmental lens. I like to describe FGCU as a spot of green in a sea of gray, as the campus is nestled around 400 acres of protected natural space. The school uses these areas as a living environmental lab to educate the community that surrounds it. What separates FGCU even further from other universities is how they also try to make that “gray” a little greener. The school boasts 10 LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) buildings. This certification, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, provides a framework for green building design, construction, operations, and performance. Some buildings are even cooled using “ice-farms” on campus that greatly reduce environmental impacts while saving on electricity. FGCU is one of only 160 campuses around the country that use geothermal energy to cool classrooms. The university is able to even further reduce its reliance on external energy with the use of a 15-acre solar photovoltaic array that tilts and rotates to “follow” the sun throughout the day.

A birds eye view of a boardwalk surrounded by cypress trees. Photo courtesy of James Grecco at FGCU

FGCU goes a step further to ensure that every student who steps foot on campus experiences how unique this location really is. Students are required to take “University Colloquium,” a semester-long class examining sustainability issues and the environmental practices of the university. This course takes students, regardless of their major, out into the conservation areas around the campus and lets them explore areas that some might never otherwise get the opportunity to experience. I often see classes with the Campus Naturalists(Opens in a new window), a student-led organization, wading through flooded cypress domes, chest deep in the water, squealing with nerves and excitement as they walk deeper into the crystal-clear freshwater. As a graduate assistant, I would take my students to the outdoor classroom in an upland oak hammock to learn about the plants around them. I watch their expressions go from fear to fascination as they move further away from the sidewalk, and get to embrace these natural spaces. There are often comments about Jurassic Park as we walk down into the cypress domes, surrounded by towering giant leather fern and alligator flag. These biology students have the rare opportunity to study representative ecosystems and use these environments as an in-person practice exam.

 

A group of kayakers in the backwaters of Florida Photo courtesy of James Grecco at FGCU

On any given day, I find myself in the campus conservation areas either conducting research, educating students, or just exploring what’s around me through iNaturalist(Opens in a new window), an app that help you identify the natural world around you! You can post photos of your plant, animal, and fungi observations for identification while helping contribute to biodiversity science. The platform shares findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility(Opens in a new window) to help scientists find and use massive amounts of open-source data for research. Just in my free time, while hiking the campus trails, I’ve identified 30 species of fungi. Other days I’m helping with radio telemetry studies of eastern diamondback rattlesnake habitat use on campus. I am part of a group that helps relocate snakes when people in the surrounding area run into them helping to minimize human-wildlife conflicts and take the opportunity to educate the public about the ecosystems around their homes. My research has taken me swimming in cypress sloughs, climbing through cocoa plums and cabbage palms, scratching my legs on saw grass and black needle rush, all while never needing to leave the campus. I aim to teach others that Florida has so much more to offer aside from the beach!

A sunny shot of a campus building in the background, with a pond in the foreground Photo courtesy of James Grecco at FGCU

Unpopular opinion: my favorite season in Southwest Florida is summer. While most people are inside, trying to beat the heat, volunteers from FGCU are going wild for frogs. Once a month from June through September, when rainy season downpours leave ephemeral ponds ideal for frog and toad spawning, the Southwest Florida Amphibian Monitoring Network, aka Frog Watch(Opens in a new window), gets together. The group started in 2000 with the aim of learning more about into frogs and toads are affected by habitat loss and hydrology changes due to development, as well as factors such as climate change, drought, and introduction of non-native species. The assessments not only tell us about amphibian health but provide insight into overall ecosystem health as these animals are very susceptible to even small environmental change. Initiatives like this one showcase the unique connections FGCU has with its community. The people of Southwest Florida want to embrace the nature around them in a tangible, hands-on way, and Frog Watch allows them to do just that.

Two people in knee deep water inspecting a mangrove tree Photo courtesy of James Grecco at FGCU

One element of the university and its environmental faculty that continues to inspire faith in this sustainable model is that the school is aware of its own footprint. Teams within FGCU are constantly trying to learn more about the impacts the school has on the environment, while appreciating and celebrating the uniqueness of the campus itself. In efforts to assess our impact on the wildlife around us, campus faculty and staff have been documenting biodiversity on the campus since its inception. To date, we have documented 838 species on campus, some of which are state or federally threatened animals. Many of my days began with class and ended with me dirty and tired after doing data collection in the natural areas around campus.

A group of individuals shoveling dirt for a tree planting Photo courtesy of James Grecco at FGCU

While this campus is striving to be the model for campus and environmental sustainability, it faces constant development in the surrounding areas. Because of this, environmentalists at the school make it their mission to connect with the community around them to teach sustainable living best practices and habitat conservation. For example, The FGCU Food Forest(Opens in a new window) works to advance the mission of the university through offering unique and innovative educational and service-learning opportunities to promote the awareness of sustainable food production and whole food nutrition. FGCU also has centers around Southwest Florida to assist with research and community engagement. Vestor Marine Station(Opens in a new window), located in Bonita Springs, is in proximity to a variety of water bodies that gives us a unique opportunity for wetland and aquatic ecosystem research. Similarly, Everglades Wetland Research Park(Opens in a new window) (EWRP) is a FGCU campus located within the Kapnick Center’s at the Naples Botanical Garden in Naples, FL. The EWRP provides teaching, research, and service related to wetland, river, coastal science, and ecological engineering.

A colorful container with the words Photo courtesy of James Grecco at FGCU

FGCU’s impact can be felt throughout the state and when you come to Southwest Florida, #OspreyOnCampus often means more than one thing.

Does your campus have easy access to the outdoors? A one-of-a-kind outdoor recreation program? Add the #OspreyOnCampus on Instagram(Opens in a new window) to share your story!