Students learn importance of wetlands at education center
LAND O’ LAKES -
Dominic Sala was about to make an exciting find and didn’t even realize it.
The 12-year-old River Ridge Middle seventh-grader leaned over a wooden walkway that juts partially into a lake at Cross Bar Ranch, home to an environmental education center where Pasco students learn about the water so crucial to life in Florida.
Dominic swept a net near vegetation that grows along the lake’s shoreline. He pulled up the net to reveal a disappointing mixture of weeds and mud. Nothing more.
Or so it appeared.
Environmental science teacher Jean Knight had cautioned Dominic and his classmates that this nature excursion required patience and close observation. Tiny creatures lurk ready for discovery by those who aren’t too quick to toss those net contents back into the water.
Knight spotted it first. Amid the gunk in Dominic’s net lay a skinny, inch-long predaceous diving beetle larva.
“First one we caught all year,” she announced excitedly.
That’s saying something because Knight and students who visit her at Cross Bar Ranch have pored over net contents daily since January. They capture and learn about damselflies, creeping water bugs, perch, minnows and other denizens of the lake.
It’s science education, up close and personal.
“I like this kind of science,” said Sara Haynes, 13. “I don’t really like science in the classroom.”
Cross Bar Ranch is one of three environmental centers the school district operates. The others are the Energy and Marine Center in Port Richey and Starkey Park Environmental Center in New Port Richey.
Students from throughout the county visit the centers for environmental education programs that the school district incorporates into the curriculum, which is somewhat unusual, said Laura Hill, Pasco’s science supervisor.
Other school districts may have environmental centers that students visit for field trips, but they usually aren’t tied so directly to the classroom, she said.
At Cross Bar Ranch, seventh-grade students participate in a program called Watersheds Ambassadors, in which they learn about uplands and wetlands and their importance to Florida’s ecosystem.
Before coming to the center, the students prepare with lessons in math, science, language arts and social studies that are connected to what they will learn when they arrive at the site.
In the fall, Knight teaches the Watersheds Ambassadors program at Starkey. In the spring, she and the program move to Cross Bar Ranch.
The 12,500-acre property at Cross Bar Ranch is owned by Pinellas County Utilities, and the school district pays for use of the land and a safari bus that takes students on an excursion into the wilds where they might spy deer, bobcats or other wildlife, including the Florida scrub jay, a species dwindling in numbers.
“There are only a few places you can see scrub jays,” Hill said.
Funding from Tampa Bay Water and the Southwest Florida Water Management District helps offset some of the costs for the district to operate the Watersheds Ambassadors program.
The River Ridge Middle seventh-graders who visited Cross Bar Ranch on Friday were greeted by a light rain that threatened their explorations, but the rain halted by the time any of them headed to the lake.
The students also participated in a lesson on soil led by Debra Miller, a River Ridge Middle science teacher. Using water and plastic containers, they experimented with gravel, sand and clay to determine which is most likely to allow water to seep through to the aquifer.
The students guessed correctly that clay was the least likely to let water through. Juston Polisena, 12, was surprised, though, that not a drop penetrated the clay.
“I thought at least some of it would get through,” he said.
Not far away, Bob Black, who drives the bus that brings students to the center and assists with the lessons, helped students test the pH level of water scooped from the lake.
They determined the water was just right to keep wildlife in and around the lake thriving.
As if to prove them right, three small alligators loitered nearby, just one more piece of nature’s handiwork for the students to observe.
“It’s alligator day,” Knight said.
Avey Catellier, 12, was just as impressed with a tiny perch one of his classmates netted. “I want to take one of them home,” he said wistfully.
All the creatures stayed put at Cross Bar Ranch, but the students did steal away with plenty of extra science knowledge.