A few weeks ago, Patrick Gustave had hardly given a passing thought to water, or how much of it he used, or if he should use less.
Water came out of the faucet when he needed it, and that was all that mattered.
But since studying in Professor Natalie Whitcomb’s Introduction to Environmental Science course, he’s learned all about the Florida aquifer, and how he can help protect it by making small changes in his everyday life.
“I started turning off the water when I brush my teeth and taking shorter showers,” said Gustave, 23, a resident of Winter Haven who will graduate with his Associate in Arts degree in May. “But the main thing is I started turning off the water when I wash the dishes. I used to just let it run and run.”
On Monday, Gustave and his classmates put all their new environmental knowledge and awareness into action, planting five rain gardens at Polk State Winter Haven.
The day’s work continued a project Whitcomb started two years ago in her class.
“The students really like taking an active approach to learning,” said Whitcomb, whose emphasis on service-learning recently contributed to her winning the 2013 Outstanding Educator Award from the Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies.
“They like being able to put what we’ve been studying all semester into real use, creating something that will last long after they pass this class.”
Created about five years ago, Whitcomb’s Introduction to Environmental Science course teaches the connections between the local environment and environment on a global scale.
During the semester, students meet with City of Winter Haven Natural Resources Division Director Mike Britt and Natural Resources Coordinator Mary Thornhill, as well as Anne Yasalonis, program coordinator for the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods program at the Polk County Extension, to learn about the Florida aquifer, the effects of urbanization on our natural environment, and Florida-friendly landscaping that can withstand the state’s weather conditions.
“It’s really fantastic to see the students apply what they’re learning and get involved,” Britt said. “They take the opportunity to learn about water and the role they can play in protecting our water and other natural resources. I think they understand that they have an impact on our water and other natural resources, and they’re really interested in learning how they can be a part of reducing those impacts.”
Students also learn about rain gardens, which contain native plants and help redirect water runoff into the ground, where it recharges the aquifer. Their learning culminates with the rain garden project. Gardens have been planted for three years in a row now, and dot the Winter Haven campus from the Administration Building to just north of the Health Center.
On Monday, students were working across the campus, digging holes for native plants such as blanket flower and blueberries. About half the plants were donated from Davenport nursery The Natives.
As they churned the dirt to make way for the plants, students said one of the most important things they’ll take away this semester is knowing that they have the power to make a difference in their environment.
“Maybe I can even help other people in other countries who don’t know how to conserve water,” said Peter Valmont, 21, a resident of Winter Haven who is studying toward his Associate in Arts and wants to do humanitarian work.
At Polk State, students study a broad range of natural and physical sciences, either as requirements for their Associate in Arts degrees prior to transferring to four-year institutions, or entering one of the College’s bachelor’s or Health Sciences programs.