Gulf Shores teacher wins national environmental education award

Oyster restoration projects, hands-on learning earn Fleming EPA spotlight

Editorial Assistant
Posted 7/10/24

A local teacher is one of only nine educators in the country to be recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for her immersive environmental science curriculum.

According to the …

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Gulf Shores teacher wins national environmental education award

Oyster restoration projects, hands-on learning earn Fleming EPA spotlight

Photos by Micah Green / Gulf Coast Media

A local teacher is one of only nine educators in the country to be recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for her immersive environmental science curriculum.

According to the EPA, Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE) winners demonstrated leadership by integrating environmental education into multiple subjects and using topics such as climate change, environmental justice, water infrastructure, waste management, water quality, environmentally friendly agricultural practices, STEM education and school gardens to teach about environmental sustainability. The winners also demonstrated how they inspire members of their communities to participate in environmental education activities.

Established under the 1990 National Environmental Education Act, PIAEE recognizes educators who go beyond traditional teaching methods by incorporating innovative and practical approaches to environmental education. The award honors those who engage students with hands-on projects that address critical issues such as climate change, environmental justice and sustainability.

“Environmental stewardship often begins in the classroom with young people and educators who are taking our planet’s most pressing climate change and environmental justice challenges head on,” White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said. “This year’s awardees represent passionate and dedicated leaders who are tackling the climate crisis, improving public health and delivering a more equitable future for all.”

This can all be seen daily within the classroom of Gulf Shores High School environmental science teacher Krista Fleming.

"It feels like I've earned the nation's highest honor for an environmental science teacher.” said Fleming, who was nominated by Career Tech Education Director Jessica Sampley. “It reinforces my instructional decisions and makes me grateful for our district and community partners for their support.”

Fleming has spearheaded initiatives aimed at fostering environmental stewardship among her students. One of her notable projects is the oyster gardening unit, developed in collaboration with Dennis Hatfield, President of Little Lagoon Preservation Society. Students learn to care for and raise oysters for restoration purposes in Mobile Bay, where 90% of the oyster population has been decimated by overharvesting, pollution and disease. Fleming combines this with other oyster curriculum, such as a species identification sheet she created after a similar one she completed during a teacher workshop she attended last year at the Galapagos.

“We do the species ID. We learn about the anatomy of the oyster. We learn about their role in the ecosystem,” Fleming said.

Fleming and her students also began conducting small-scale population samples. Instead of counting every oyster in all 16 cages, which would take too long, they took samples from clusters and extrapolated the data to estimate the total oyster population they were raising on the pier. This approach taught students how scientists make population estimates in the field.

In collaboration with Auburn University and the extension center, they also developed an equation to calculate the oysters' impact on the ecosystem. The equation factored in the filtration capacity of each oyster — 50 gallons of water per day — and the total number of oysters, translating this into acres of restoration value. This data provided a tangible understanding of the oysters' role in habitat creation and water filtration.

“We have raised since we started in 2019 with the oyster gardening almost 35,000 oysters,” Fleming said, “and then if we put the reservation value on that, it’s right at $38,000, it’s $37,945, so just about $38,000 worth of oysters we've raised in restoration values.”

Fleming highlighted one of her students who initiated a Capstone project and received a grant from Gulf Reach. Serving as the Alabama ambassador for this initiative, he raised marsh plants that the class recently planted in the living shorelines. This effort complements previous lessons and projects on living shoreline grasses. Students had earlier used Google Earth to map and measure the marsh areas. Fleming said she hopes that by next year, updated maps will reflect the newly renourished beaches, demonstrating the direct impact of their efforts.

Recently, students built an artificial reef with Reef Maker in her summer class. Her curriculum also includes engaging students in dune restoration projects with the Dune Doctors and Gulf State Park.

“That’s my biggest thing is continuing to learn because I think the best teachers are lifelong learners,” Fleming said. “And the more that I learn and the more I work with our community partners, you know, I don’t think I could do what I do without them and their local environmental expertise.”

Building community

Fleming attributed much of the program's success to the support from the school administration, central office, school board and community partners, from the principal's encouragement for hands-on science learning to the district's commitment to providing opportunities to engage directly with environmental projects.

“The things that I learn and get to see are like ‘wow, I wish I had these opportunities when I went to high school.’ And not just my class. I mean, we're building airplanes, and we've got students that are in the hospital observing surgeries, like, what great opportunities.”

Fleming in turn extends support outside her classroom. The leadership aspect of her PIAEE application highlighted her role in expanding the environmental science initiative from her classroom to become a district-wide program.

Outside of the classroom, she is past president of the Alabama National Board Certified Teacher Network, where she led training sessions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Fleming organized and led a national seminar with the National Board, discussing effective science resources and strategies for online student engagement.

Fleming was a finalist for Alabama Teacher of the Year in 2020. She also reached the final stages for the 2021 Presidential Award of Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, with three state finalists nominated for science. She is still waiting on the White House to release the results.

While Fleming said the PIAEE award the pinnacle of recognition for an environmental science teacher, she knows the real impact is with her students.

“They're our future," she said. "So, getting them to want to protect and preserve the environment for the future and understand how that relates with tourism here, I think that's huge.”