Inside Monroe County classrooms, students will take their learning beneath the depths as they explore the world’s only underwater research and education laboratory. Through data collected by Florida International University scientists, young learners will also interpret and analyze water quality data from Biscayne Bay, where excessive amounts of phosphorus and high water temperatures have led to massive fish kill.

Interactive lessons and engaging activities have arrived inside Keys classrooms through FIU’s “Mission Inspire.” The Monroe County School District is the first to adopt and take part in this new FIU curriculum, which includes digital courses, or “expeditions, that utilize research to make lessons relevant. 

Elaine Pritzker, director of education outreach for FIU, said the new “Mission Inspire” simplifies concepts and provides real world examples to connect what they’re learning. Comprehending gas pressure laws can be a tough concept to pick up on, but applying it to scuba diving can help learners understand the importance of pressure at various depths. 

“Mission Inspire” also shows that science is not just for researchers and lab technicians. 

“It requires a lot of different people,” she said. “Even if you see yourself as a communicator, there’s still something you can do and you can be part of this. We’re also showing the exploratory nature of science and how you don’t always get it right the first time, and that we learn when something doesn’t go the way we expect it.”

FIU’s education outreach program prepared for a series of in-person field trips in early 2020 for Monroe County Schools, thanks to funding from Royal Caribbean. After the first few, the global COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing the team to pivot to virtual field trips. When those concluded, the school system wanted to continue the partnership, mentioning their teachers needed more interactive content and curriculum for their classrooms.

Florida International University’s Aquarius Reef Base. CONTRIBUTED

Education outreach decided to expand their programming — and came up with “Mission Inspire.” The team created everything that goes into each module, including lesson plans and other supplemental materials, like videos, and made sure each lesson in the learning modules ties back to research conducted by FIU scientists.

FIU’s new curriculum includes “Expedition Ocean,” which takes students to Aquarius Reef Base to learn more about the coral reef ecosystem, issues of coral bleaching and sea level rise and what scientists do in the underwater research lab. Deployed 60 feet beneath the surface of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Aquarius provides unparalleled means to study the ocean. It also serves as training grounds for specialized divers and astronauts. 

“Aquarius is something that is so unique. Anyone who has read about “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” or seen “Atlantis,” the idea of living underwater is something we thought would be exciting. That would give us a hook to touch on other issues we knew were core to what students are trying to learn,” Pritzker said.

Everything from water quality data to the loss of mangroves due to development are examined in “Expedition Biscayne Bay.” Students will also learn the detriments surrounding marine debris and how human activity plays a role in wildlife, the community and tourism. 

“These are really big problems that are going to require a lot of different people working on a lot of different levels,” Pritzker said. “It’s inspiring not only students, but also parents. It’s a whole community effort that they’re most invested in. We’re also trying to bring this outside of the Keys to places that are more landlocked, because they have a role in it too.”

Pritzker added that it was a “no-brainer” for FIU to go to Mornoe with the new curriculum. 

“We’re in their community. We feel that’s part of what we want to do. We want to help them understand what we’re doing in our backyard and what they can do,” she said

Teachers like Joylyn Smith,  a marine science and environmental science teacher at Key West High School, are excited to use the “Mission Inspire” curriculum in their classes.

“I’m looking forward to using these lessons to foster a sense of ownership in our local environment in my students,” Smith said. “I am a huge advocate of place based environmental education and these lessons are incredibly relevant and well thought out.”

Mission Inspire will be expanding to other schools soon. The Education Outreach team is also currently creating other courses, including Expedition Miami, Expedition Forensics, Expedition AstroScience and more. For more information, visit inspire.fiu.edu.

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Jim McCarthy believes in community reporting, giving back and life on the water. A workout fanatic, diver and a bogey-golfer, Jim loves chicken wings, Marvel movies and sports.