The Bear Brigade, a new pilot educational program to teach ecological concepts to fourth- and fifth-grade students in Orange and Seminole County will visit six elementary schools by the end of this month to foster a greater interest in the subject at an early age.

To effectively teach conservation and other environmental concepts, organizers said it is more effective to focus on an animal that young children can identify with. So in Central Florida, the black bear was chosen as the most appropriate critter to focus on and use to teach about biology, management, human interactions and how all of these systems affect each other. UCF and Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers created the program modeled on a similar program, the Panther Posse, run by Wings of Hope, a nonprofit organization at FGCU.

“As a biologist and a parent I’ve seen children lose interest in science early, even before middle school. But if you show them science, really make it relevant where they can see it, taste it, smell it, they are floored and want to know more and more,” said Graham Worthy, chair of UCF’s biology department. “That’s why we wanted to do this, to help young children stay excited about science. We need to be reaching out to them earlier.”

The bear also was picked to represent the program because UCF has an in-house expert, biology researcher Dan Smith, who can advise the group. Smith is currently studying bear movements and behavior along the urban perimeter and corridors connecting habitat areas around the Wekiva River.

The goal of the Bear Brigade program is ultimately to increase student interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, and with this endeavor, especially biology. The program is not just about bears but also the concept that by protecting the large blocks of wildlife habitat needed for a species like the black bear, you also help with water conservation and other critical ecosystem services.

Classroom sessions in topics such as anatomy, habitat, feeding habits, and dangers facing the bears will be lead by UCF students Molly Grace, Hannah Perkins, Liezelle Calina, Mirian Burrow, Madison Hall, Carly Kestranek and the FGCU partners, led by Ricky Pires, director of Wings of Hope. The organizers are planning to take the elementary school students on a field trip to Wekiwa Springs State Park next spring to see the habitat where the bears live so they can get a better appreciation for the whole ecosystem.

“The timing is perfect for such a program in Central Florida with the bears of Wekiva prominent in the news of late,” Worthy said. “Bear management and conservation and public safety in the surrounding neighborhoods is garnering a lot of public attention.”

The bear population in Florida is estimated at 3,200, he said, and in Central Florida the areas of highest density are Wekiwa Springs State Park and Ocala National Forest.

The schools that will participate in the pilot Bear Brigade project are: Evans Elementary, Oviedo; Heathrow Elementary, Lake Mary; Wetherbee Elementary, Orlando; Wekiva Springs Elementary, Wekiva Springs; and Clay Springs Elementary and Rock Springs Elementary, both in Apopka.

“Science is all around these kids every day,” Worthy said. “As a department we’re trying to encourage STEM education and outreach so they have a better appreciation of the world around them, and Bear Brigade is a great opportunity to achieve both of these goals.”

The Bear Brigade project is a partnership involving UCF and FGCU faculty and students, local school teachers and students, Florida State Parks, Disney Wilderness Preserve, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Friends of Wekiva River, National Park Service, and the Wekiva National Wild and Scenic River System.