As a youngster growing up in Buffalo, New York, Mike Sowinski wanted to work with bald eagles. Through his college biology and fisheries management courses, he became interested in what the birds eat – fish. Sowinski established a decade-long career with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and moved into the invasive plant management section. He’s been working on growing his knowledge of the topic ever since.
This month, Sowinski began taking a class that will lead to the completion of a new, fully online weed science graduate certificate program offered through the University of Florida’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS). The college is part of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).
Available in fall of this year, the certificate program addresses nuisance and invasive plant species that pose threats to the environment. Courses help students understand the biology, impacts and management of these agricultural and natural area weeds that interfere with crop production, native biodiversity or recreational activities, such as boating.
“I talk with a lot of people in my job, and I’d like to go into the details with them about trends, locations, herbicides and selectivity, so that I can better help answer questions from the public,” Sowinski said. “I hope that the knowledge I gain from this certificate program will help me share with others that they don’t have to be afraid of herbicides when used appropriately.”
Sowinski will also use the certificate program as a way to advance in his career. The flexibility of the graduate certificate’s online format allows students like Sowinski to complete it anywhere while working full-time.
Invasive non-native plants harm Florida’s natural environment and can lead to the loss of biodiversity. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates more than 1.7 million acres of Florida’s remaining natural areas are infested with non-native plant species. Managing Florida invasive plants costs nearly $45 million in state and federal funding a year, according to a recent study co-authored by a UF/IFAS associate professor of ecology, S. Luke Flory.
Over the past year, faculty with the UF/IFAS Agronomy Department and UF/IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants (CAIP) recognized the need for continuing education for professionals in the area of nuisance plants and invasive weed management. Many people who work with invasive plants have a background or education in wildlife management, said agronomy assistant professor Candice Prince.
“Those folks are now needing a background in plant science to address invasive plants,” Prince said. “Many already are learning from our faculty in CAIP and Agronomy who are on the cutting edge of weed science. This is a great way to get up to date on new plant management techniques while forming working relationships with faculty.”
The certificate requires the completion of nine credit hours (three classes). Students select two electives from five course options and take a required course on integrated weed management for both agriculture and natural areas.
Prince said this is a great opportunity for students who are interested in graduate school but want to try out some courses first. It is not necessary to be admitted to the UF Graduate School to earn a certificate, though credits earned as part of the certificate may be applied to a UF graduate program if a student decides to enroll.
Aquatic plant management is a strength of the certificate program and rarely taught outside UF. UF has been teaching classes on this topic through on-campus courses and will be transitioning the courses to be online for this certificate program and flexibility of CALS students studying at research locations around the state. Lessons focus on water quality issues, aquatic habitats, and invasive and nuisance plants in aquatic environments.
A new course on upland invasive plant management has been developed and will be included in this online certificate program. Content will include impacts of invasive plants in terrestrial ecosystems and environmentally responsible management practices of nuisance species in these areas.
“There isn’t another weed science certificate program in the country,” Prince said. “Others loosely include invasive plants that affect only natural resources or agriculture. Ours is a nice blend of the two while utilizing management tools from both systems.”