A group of science faculty members who work at Saint Leo University's residential campus north of Tampa, FL, have become part of a network of educators who offer community-based courses for adults wanting to know more about Florida's plants, animals, and ecosystems.

Collectively, the Saint Leo group has decades of knowledge and experience in the areas of marine life, ecology, and life sciences and biology education, which helps support the university's Bachelor of Science in biology with a specialization in ecology. They are now also representing the university in a partnership with the Florida Master Naturalist Program, run by the Institute for Agricultural and Life Sciences—more popularly known as IFAS—and affiliated with the University of Florida. IFAS is devoted to the spread of knowledge about agriculture and human and natural resources to enhance the quality of life in Florida. The Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) supports that goal by offering short-term courses on a variety of topics to enthusiasts.

The first course to be taught by Saint Leo faculty through this new arrangement is called Florida Master Naturalist Program: Coastal Systems. The Saint Leo group is the only instructor-group in the naturalist program to offer this from Pasco County, whose geography features 20 miles of coast along the Gulf of Mexico.

The course runs over 10 sessions throughout the month of July into early August and will deliver information on: marine and estuarine (points where salt water from the ocean and freshwater mix) habitats, coastal marine life including water birds, and environmental ethics. Sessions are divided between live online instruction (because of COVID) and self-guided field activities, such as kayaking to observe the mangroves in Upper Tampa Bay and taking a beach trip to learn to identify bird life.

The faculty were excited to find that this first course filled up quickly. (The Florida Master Naturalist Program runs its own online site.)

Saint Leo's biology faculty "want to be a resource for the surrounding community," said Dr. Bill Ellis, a marine biologist who is leading the course along with colleagues Cheryl Berry, life sciences and biology instructor, and with ecologists Drs. Laura Altfeld and Chris Miller.

Berry elaborated, noting that the outreach "aligns with our core value of responsible stewardship. We embrace FMNP's mission of fostering understanding and respect for Florida's natural environment. The goal of this naturalist program is to teach others—so they in turn can be able to teach their own friends and communities about Florida's natural environments."

In the future, after the health threats of COVID have further diminished, she said, "we foresee the FMNP courses as a great way to introduce Saint Leo University to our neighbors in Pasco and surrounding counties." Although the University Campus sits on State Road 52 in eastern Pasco County, its green lawns, its variety of birds and plants, and the freshwater ecosystem created by the presence of Lake Jovita are not visible to people driving on the roadway.

"One of the College of Arts and Sciences' goals is to build strong relationships with the surrounding community. One way to achieve this is to create opportunities for people to come to our beautiful campus to participate in initiatives such as this course offered by our science faculty," said Dr. Heather Parker, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "Saint Leo is Pasco County's only university, and its campus is a hidden gem offering an oasis in the midst of a formerly rural community that is quickly becoming more populated and developed. We encourage people from all walks of life to visit the campus and to take advantage of many opportunities to learn with us."

Future naturalist course participants are likely to span all generations, based on the previous experience of the program. Those who enroll have been professionals, teachers, outdoor enthusiasts, and college students. 

In fact, the Saint Leo science faculty also have the goal of making the naturalist courses available to biology majors in the ecology track, or any member of the Saint Leo community who would like to add an ecosystem course certificate to their academic credentials.

That population of prospective students might include biology majors in the general track, biology majors interested in teaching in secondary schools, or students enrolled in the biology minor or environmental studies minor, for instance. Students enrolled in other programs who have an interest in the outdoors are welcome, too.