UPPER KEYS -- Florida International University has long been involved with scientific research related to the Florida Keys, especially the aquatic environments of the reefs and Florida Bay.
Now, backed by a local nonprofit organization, FIU is seeking to establish a permanent research and education center in the Upper Keys. The facility would be used for both science and community educational outreach.
"We'd like to have a base for our researchers so they don't always have to come down from Miami," said Mike Heithaus, executive dean of FIU's School of the Environmental Arts and Society. "And by having that base we can be more involved with the community and the schools."
Even lacking that base, FIU has already begun to increase its presence in the Upper Keys. The university has helped sponsor the seven-installment Ocean Life Lecture Series at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center, which commenced in January and wraps up in July. Five of the lecturers, including Heithaus, are FIU professors.
Next up, in August, university professors will hold a training via teleconference with Monroe County School District teachers. The seminar, titled "Essential Aspects of 21st Century Science: Scientific Thinking!", is the first formal collaboration between FIU and the nonprofit Keys Ahead, chaired by retired nurse and Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District Commissioner Susan Hammaker.
But it's not expected to be the last. Keys Ahead formed with the intent of bringing an FIU center to the Upper Keys so the university can expand educational resources here, both for K-12 students and for adults.
Nine other teacher seminars are tentatively scheduled through May and Heithaus said FIU is also likely to begin programs dealing directly with students during the 2012-13 school year. The university recently hired an education coordinator for the Keys to work on such programs.
"I am excited that the Upper Keys will have the opportunity to have a relationship with a four-year university and that will complement what we have already and that's our junior college," Plantation Key School Principal Vanessa Strickland said, referencing Florida Keys Community College. Strickland is also on the Keys Ahead board.
In March, Keys Ahead and FIU entered into a Memorandum of Understanding under which they will collaborate to raise funds for a land purchase and to endow an FIU center.
Heithaus said FIU must have $5 million for the center to be officially sanctioned by the state and formally named. So far, Keys Ahead has raised $3 million in cash and bequests, Hammaker said.
Also under the memorandum, FIU and Keys Ahead are to work together to secure a location for the research and education center. Keys Ahead would be charged with formally leasing or purchasing the property, which it would then authorize FIU to use.
One promising site is the Green Turtle Hammock Park property in Islamorada. The 7.5-acre bayside Upper Matecumbe Key location is village-owned, but since 2009, daily operations have been handled by the nonprofit Green Turtle Hammock Foundation.
However, the foundation has decided to pull out of the mile marker 81 site effective this week, Islamorada Parks Director John Sutter said. That means the village will be looking for a new entity to operate the property in order to defray costs, he added.
Keys Ahead has already expressed an interest in taking it over, though nothing concrete is in place.
The property contains an old waterfront home that the National Parks Conservation Association recently used as its Upper Keys office, in addition to an old upland home. It also has a boat basin, plenty of dockage and a hardwood hammock.
Heithaus expressed excitement about its potential in a Monday interview.
"Obviously, it would be a fantastic location," he said.