EAST COUNTY — Carson Fischer waded back to shore, checking his net momentarily as he sloshed through water and back onto dry land.
He and the rest of the fifth-grade class at McNeal Elementary School were elated as they captured shrimp, small fish and other sea life in shallow waters off Leffis Key Friday, Sept. 28. Students then circled around their finds while instructor Sara McCutcheon, of Nature’s Academy, shared with them about each creature, its environment and other environmental lessons.
“It’s been really fun,” Carson said, noting he enjoyed picking up trash along the beach as part of the day’s festivities. “We’ve been helping the environment. It was great. I learned there are all kinds of shrimp called lobster shrimp. I found out there’s such thing as a pipefish; it’s a cousin of the seahorse.”
Fifth-grader Colin Apgar agreed.
“It was fun,” he said. “I got to see things I’ve never seen before. (We caught) blue crabs and shrimp. You get to see it in pictures, but it’s fun to see it in real life. It was awesome.”
Through a field trip with Nature’s Academy, a nonprofit environmental education company that provides custom “edventure” programs to area schools and other organizations, children hiked through Florida’s native habitat, learning about plant and animal adaptations, estuaries and more. They also cleaned up litter along the beach and scooped up marine creatures for a hands-on marine biology lessons.
“We’re trying to share with our local community what’s in their backyard,” said Dana Pounds, co-founder of Nature’s Academy. “Twenty percent to 40% of the students (we teach) have never been to the Gulf of Mexico.
“The area grows each year and so does the impact on water quality,” she said. “We’re hoping we can instill a sense of stewardship with (children) and share with them what’s in their backyard, how it works, why it’s important, what’s threatening it and how we can make it better. We can preach about why we shouldn’t litter or add extra fertilizers on our lawns or pesticides in our gardens, but until you really understand the impact you have, there’s really no connection to the land or the water.”
McNeal participated in Nature Academy’s grant-funded Island Adventures Project, which will service five Manatee County elementary schools this year, including Rowlett and Bashaw elementary schools.
Following last week’s excursion, McNeal fifth-grade classrooms received a small stipend with which they will create water-conservation projects. The students, Pound said, then are tasked with educating their fellow students with what they’ve learned, and so they will help promote stewardship of natural resources.
McNeal fifth-grade teacher Kathy Kimes said the experience will provide year-long learning opportunities for students.
“It gives me the physical experience for the children,” Kimes said. “When I talk about adaptations, I can say, ‘Remember (on the field trip). They have that (first-hand knowledge). Our brain works on making connections. They remember this.”
Nature’s Academy launched its Island Adventures Project in 2009 and hopes to fund marine-science field trips for every fifth-grade student in Manatee and Pinellas counties by 2020, Pounds said.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].