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Board announcing the future site of The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University. (Credit: WINK News)
Board announcing the future site of The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University. (Credit: WINK News)

FGCU’s “The Water School” brings the water quality battle to our backyard

November 2019 marked the groundbreaking of the new site for The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University. The state-of-the-art facility is symbolic of years of water research in Southwest Florida. Just eight months earlier, FGCU announced the establishment of the program on World Water Day.

Dr. Greg Tolley, Executive Director of The Water School said, “The Water School builds on over two decades of water research we’ve been doing in this area. We’ve been growing our education programs, our research portfolio, and to see this building actually start to come to life is just a real game-changer for us.”

FGCU opened in August 1997, with an environmental focus in its Founding Mission Statement:

“The Region in which the University will be located combines rapid population growth in a geographically constrained area, the Gulf of Mexico to the west and Lake Okeechobee to the east, with a unique and sensitive environment. The University, therefore, will be ideally suited to emphasize the study of the environment. Building on a strong program at the graduate level, the University will have the opportunity to ultimately develop a center for environmentally oriented graduate programs and research.”

With that realization in mind, the university dedicated itself to expanding science studies, forging partnerships with community organizations, and researching and monitoring our water.

Not only are there dedicated science buildings on FGCU’s campus where students and faculty can conduct research, but The Water School has a presence across Southwest Florida, with facilities in Bonita Springs at Vester Field Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station as well as Everglades Wetland Research Park established at Kapnick Center on the campus of Naples Botanical Garden.

As The Water School continues its stewardship in Southwest Florida, the student experience is the top priority for the program; However, the goal is to also serve the community at large.

“The Water School will help us not only to train the next generation of water leaders here in Southwest Florida but also allows us to track top-notch faculty and staff from around the country and around the world to help us bring even more research capacity to this region to make sure that we’re addressing those environmental and water issues that are important to the people of Southwest Florida,” Dr. Tolley said.

Timeline of the history of The Water School, provided by FGCU:

Aug 1997 FGCU opens on its 760-acre campus south of Fort Myers. College of Arts and Sciences offers a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies, with concentrations that include Environmental Studies and Earth Systems Science.

Aug 1997 University’s Founding Mission Statement includes focus on environment:

“The Region in which the University will be located combines rapid population growth in a geographically constrained area, the Gulf of Mexico to the west and Lake Okeechobee to the east, with a unique and sensitive environment. The University, therefore, will be ideally suited to emphasize the study of the environment. Building on a strong program at the graduate level, the University will have the opportunity to ultimately develop a center for environmentally oriented graduate programs and research.”

Feb 1998 First Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program grant award to develop techniques that assess the health of tidal tributaries in Estero Bay.

Mar 1998 Campus Ecosystem Model for undergraduate education. With FGCU campus as a focus for the study of the entire watershed, Model provides a context for incorporating interdisciplinary teaching, research, and collaborative and active learning—all highly effective practices in undergraduate education.

May 1998 First Florida Sea Grant award in support of Elise B. Newell Seminar series to bring noted speakers to FGCU. Seminars have since brought experts from around the country to Southwest Florida to stimulate research and inform local communities about issues of environmental concern.

Jul 1998 First National Science Foundation grant award to acquire research-grade instruments in support of Campus Ecosystem Model. FGCU purchases a modular unit to house new instruments, thus creating the University’s first science research laboratory.

Apr 1999 First Florida Institute of Oceanography grant award to take students to sea on state oceanographic research vessel and gain hands-on experience collecting and analyzing environmental data. Cruises are now an important element of Marine Science curriculum at FGCU.

Jul 2000 First South Florida Water Management District grant award to investigate impact of altered freshwater flow in Caloosahatchee River and Estuary on oysters and associated organisms.

Nov 2000 Partnership agreement with Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation to promote environmental education and provide career guidance to FGCU students.

Apr 2001 First Congressional grant from U.S. Department of Education to support center for environmental research and preservation and to expand Campus Ecosystem Model for undergraduate education.

Aug 2001 Opening of Whitaker Hall, the first dedicated science building on campus.

Apr 2002 FGCU begins first of many community-based oyster-reef restoration projects in Southwest Florida. Funding partners include Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, National Marine Fisheries Services, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Aug 2002 Marine Science major replaces Earth Systems Science from which it developed. The program prepares students for jobs in science and technology, in the environmental field, and as educators in natural and environmental sciences, and for further graduate studies.

Mar 2003 Statement of Intent with Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. In support of complementary missions in research and education.

Apr 2003 FGCU extends oyster reef and water quality research into Ten Thousand Islands through grant from South Florida Water Management District.

Oct 2003 First Florida Institute of Oceanography grant award to take students to Florida Keys (Keys Marine Lab, Long Key, Florida) to study coral-reef and mangrove ecology. Students gain hands-on experience in collecting and analyzing environmental data. Keys trips are now an important element of Marine Science curriculum at FGCU.

Mar 2004 Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education established with a mission toward advancing “understanding and achievement of the goals of environmental and sustainability education through innovative educational research methods, emergent eco-pedagogies, and educational philosophy and practice based on an ethics of care and sustainability. The Center seeks to elevate the environmental mission of Florida Gulf Coast University and serve the University community, the local community of the Western Everglades and Barrier Islands, and the wider community of scholars.”

Mar 2004 Coastal Watershed Institute established with mission to “address regional concerns regarding the use and conservation of coastal watersheds by supporting undergraduate and graduate education in marine science and coastal watershed study; by focusing and coordinating university research on coastal environments and the conservation of natural resources; and by disseminating information to the citizens of Southwest Florida to engage and inform them about the health of coastal watersheds and related issues.”

May 2004 First Congressional grant from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in support of research related to coastal watersheds in Southwest Florida.

Aug 2004 Master of Science in Environmental Science becomes first graduate degree in natural sciences. The program prepares students for careers as environmental professionals or for further graduate studies.

Sep 2004 South Florida Water Management District grant awarded to investigate the use of tidal tributaries of Estero Bay by larval fishes, crabs, and shrimps.

Aug 2005 Partnership agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to provide support for its Coral Reef Conservation Program.

Dec 2005 FGCU graduates its 100th undergraduate student in Environmental Studies.

Dec 2006 Partnership agreement with Conservancy of Southwest Florida to create the Environmental Education and Outreach Program in Southwest Florida.

Apr 2007 Marine & Ecological Sciences faculty presented with Coastal Partnership Award for its efforts in oyster-reef restoration.

Jun 2007 Vester Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station established in Bonita Springs. The mission is to facilitate educational programs, community involvement, and research that increases understanding and promotes stewardship of coastal watersheds, estuaries, and Gulf of Mexico ecosystems.

Oct 2007 South Florida Water Management District grant award to establish the first long-term oyster-reef monitoring program in Southwest Florida.

Jan 2008 South Florida Water Management District grant awarded to investigate the effects of altered freshwater inflow in Caloosahatchee River and Estuary on plankton communities and water quality.

Jul 2008 Congressional grant from U.S. Department of Education to investigate the effects of altered freshwater in Caloosahatchee River on estuarine production.

Jul 2008 Partnership agreement for Scientific and Educational Cooperation with College of Natural Sciences, University of Bangor, Wales. Cooperative agreement to advance research in marine and environmental science and exchange of academic and scientific knowledge.

Aug 2009 Master of Arts in Environmental Studies degree offered for the first time. The program provides students with professional experience by requiring a professional internship with a local agency or environmental organization. The program also permits currently employed environmental professionals to adopt professional responsibilities into internship.

Jan 2010 Opening of Seidler Hall, the second designated science building on campus. Seidler Hall becomes the first building on campus to be certified Platinum—the highest level—by U.S. Green Building Council (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

Oct 2011 Partnership agreement for Scientific and Educational Cooperation with Université de Bretagne Occidentale (University of Brest, France). Promotes academic and scientific exchange in areas of common interest.

Dec 2011 FGCU graduates its 250th undergraduate student in Environmental Studies.

Oct 2012 Everglades Wetland Research Park established at Kapnick Center on the campus of Naples Botanical Garden. Park’s mission is to provide teaching, research, and service related to wetland, river, and coastal science and ecological engineering by understanding how wetlands function and if and how we can create and restore them.

Jan 2013 Moonlight on the Marsh Distinguished Lecture Series. Annual series open to public bringing experts from around the world to Southwest Florida to talk about wetland restoration and water issues.

May 2014 FGCU graduates its 50th graduate student in Environmental Science.

Aug 2014 FGCU graduates its 100th undergraduate student in Marine Science.

Oct 2015 Partnership agreement with Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve. Promotes cooperation in undergraduate and graduate education and collaboration on research efforts.

Jan 2017 Partnership agreement between FGCU Dept. Marine and Ecological Sciences and University of Brest, Doctoral School in Marine Science (EDSM) granting Dept. Marine and Ecological Science host laboratory status. The agreement allows students earning doctorates at EDSM to be co-supervised by FGCU Marine and Ecological Science graduate faculty and carry out part of their research at FGCU.

Aug 2017 Report from Steering Committee regarding the establishment of a School of Integrated Coastal and Watershed Studies at FGCU.

May 2017 FGCU graduates its 500th undergraduate student in Environmental Studies.

May 2018 FGCU graduates its 200th student in Marine Science.

Aug 2018 FGCU graduates its 100th graduate student in Environmental Science.

Mar 2019 FGCU announces the establishment of The Water School on World Water Day (March 22)

Nov 2019 FGCU breaks ground on Academic Building 9, the future home of The Water School

Reporter:Stephanie Byrne
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