Blue School students spread their wings

People visiting the Ocala Wetlands Recharge Park

Student interns visit the Ocala Wetlands Recharge Park as part of their work for the city of Ocala’s Water Resource Department. The park’s stormwater filtering system was developed through a District cost-share program.

Hands-on experience can elevate interest in Florida’s water resources into a calling.

Late last year we shared a story about Vanguard High School students in Ocala who were studying soil and water at the nearby Silver River in a course funded by the St. Johns River Water Management District’s Blue School Grant Program.

The grant program’s goal is to provide students with an appreciation for Florida’s water that they can build on throughout their lives. Apparently, it’s working because five former Blue School students are serving as interns with the city of Ocala’s Water Resources Department.

Ocala’s eight-week internship program allows participants to experience the day-to-day activities of its Water Resources Department, rotating them every two weeks through its public outreach, engineering and water resources divisions.

Intern Grace Gloger helped place bat boxes at the Ocala Wetland Recharge Park and worked on water conservation outreach programs for area schools during her internship.

“I definitely want to pursue a field in STEM (shorthand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math),” Gloger says. “Ocala’s internship program inspires advocacy for water conservation.”

Interns Brady Bauer and Grace Hankinson have delved into hands-on engineering, with Bauer mapping flood zones on the city’s Geographic Information System (GIS) program, preferring a survey program called AutoCAD.

“I haven’t chosen a specific career path yet, but this internship will help me,” Hankinson says. “There’s a lot about the city I didn’t know before working with AutoCAD. If I decide to become a teacher, it’s good to understand how the city works.”

Rachel Slocumb, Ocala’s Conservation Coordinator, oversees the internship program and noted that the city works closely with the District on outreach and education opportunities for the public as well as water resource protection projects.

“We are thrilled with the relationship we have built with the International Baccalaureate Vanguard classes, the District and even more so with the interns we have hired,” says Slocumb. “It is exciting to show these soon-to-be professionals the world of water and the many career opportunities in this often-overlooked industry.”

In June, the city of Ocala received a National Innovation in Conservation Award from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) for the Ocala Wetland Recharge Park, a project that received $2.1 million in cost-share funding assistance from the District in 2018. The 60-acre park features educational exhibits and kiosks, two and a half miles of walking trails and scenic boardwalks. This environmental landmark receives approximately 3 million gallons of treated wastewater and stormwater daily. The engineered ecological system of the park reduces nutrients and other pollutants in the water it receives. The newly polished water recharges or gives water directly back to the aquifer.

“It is fantastic to see student’s knowledge come full circle beginning with the Blue School Grant projects that introduced them to the topics of water resources to internships where they work on promoting the protection of our water,” says Dr. Jennifer Mitchell, coordinator of the District’s Blue School Grant Program. “These hands-on experiences will help ensure they value our water resources throughout their lives.”

Learn more about the Blue School Grant Program and how educators can apply for funding.

See our past stories