Centennial Campus Middle School students create a floating display at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course

Lily Stell couldn’t wait to get her hands dirty during one of her science classes last May.

One of three eighth-grade students from Centennial Campus Magnet Middle School, Stell helped to build a “floating island” on the Lonnie Poole Golf Course at N.C. State University.

“It was an awesome experience,” she said.

On the morning of May 20, Stell and her classmates Taryn Pickering and Nick Kight arrived at the Lonnie Poole clubhouse to find outreach coordinator Dr. Danesha Seth Carley waiting for them in a six-passenger golf cart.

“We call it the limousine golf cart,” Carley said. Most of the carts on the course seat two people.

Carley, assistant director for the Southern Region IPM Center and outreach coordinator for educational activities at the Lonnie Poole, was eager to teach the students about floating islands. During the past school year, she has met with a group of ten students from the Centennial Campus Middle School, leading them in water quality tests and teaching them how integrated pest management helps water quality. Floating islands, used primarily for their filtration capabilities, keep water healthier and reduce weeds and invasive species that thrive on imbalanced nutrient conditions.

Carley drove the students to the large irrigation pond by the 15th hole. Waiting for them on the shore was a large, thick, round mat with several holes in the top. Beside the mat were sphagnum peat moss and an array of marshland plants—rushes, sedges, cattails, blue flag iris and swamp hibiscus. For the next two hours, the students went to work filling the holes with plants and peat moss, resulting in a bouquet of wetland plants that would float in the middle of the lake.

Designed in 2000 by Montana investor Bruce Kania, floating islands can be used in any body of water—even oceans. Kania’s company, Floating Island International, touts floating islands as a “new variant on constructed wetlands, or treatment wetlands” that provides habitat for water-loving species and soaks up excess nutrients from the water. Cary resident and N.C. State alumnus Rob Crook started his own licensee of Kania’s company in 2009, called Floating Island Southeast.

Crook donated two islands to N.C State University last fall. The islands had been part of a sustainability display at Walt Disney World in Florida but were no longer needed. Crook wanted the islands to be used for another sustainability project and wondered if N.C. State staff could use them at the Lonnie Poole course.

“Rob asked me if I could use the islands on the Lonnie Poole, and I jumped at the chance,” said Carley.

Designed by golfing professional Arnold Palmer, the Lonnie Poole is classified as a “sustainable” golf course. A full 50 acres of golf course property are naturalized areas, populated with native and adapted plant species, and do not need to be maintained with the same intensity as other turfgrass areas. Deer and foxes run over the greens from the nearby forest, and waterfowl reside in the grassy wetlands by the lake in the middle of the “back nine” holes of the course.

In addition to using the islands in the sustainability design of the golf course, Carley thought it would make a perfect learning activity for a group of eighth grade science students at Centennial Campus Magnet Middle School. Carley has been meeting with the students once a month over the past year, teaching them about water quality and sustainable recreational areas.

Nearly everything about a floating island is sustainable, from its origin from recycled plastic bottles to its environmental contributions in the water. The island resembles a large, thick fibrous sponge. Holes on the top hold the plants and peat moss. The spongy texture of the mat soaks up water, but not so much that the island sinks. In fact, the island must be anchored by a cinderblock, so it doesn’t float around the lake.

After completing a test run with one of the islands a few months earlier, Carley planned to involve the middle school students in the planting of the second island. Her lessons with the students are restricted to two hours, so Carley wanted to be sure that the students could complete the entire project in that time. Gathering several high school students to help, she managed to complete the first island in an hour.

Crook, who joined the crew on the golf course to supervise the planting and launching of his islands, helped stuff the holes with peat moss and plants. Once the holes were filled, he and Carley observed from the lake’s edge as golf course technician Rob Brunning paddled a rowboat into the middle of the lake, floating island in tow. The students, who sat in the boat, watched as Brunning untied the knot from the boat to leave the island in its new home.

Elwood Peters, outreach coordinator at the middle school, noted in a letter to Carley that the experiences that day made a significant impression on the students.

“It is rewarding to see the spark that is kindled in young minds and hearts when they are able to translate the science curriculum into a concrete natural experience,” he wrote.

The two islands now float among the grasses in the lake by the 15th hole at the Lonnie Poole. Carley says that she has seen several turtles crawling on the island. The great blue heron that frequents the lakes often perches on an island, waiting for a catch. The best part, though, says Carley, is that the islands will filter excess nutrients deposited by one of the lake’s most frequent visitors (second only to golf balls), Canada geese.

Rosemary Hallberg

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