The outdoor classroom offers a unique opportunity to learn — especially when it comes to subjects like science.
Take Grace Viteri, an eighth-grade student at Chasco Middle School. She's one of about 120 students who have been enjoying the outdoor learning experience at a west Pasco estuary.
Just before the winter break, Grace spent time hunched in a grassy patch at Werner-Boyce Springs Park using a refractometer to test a water sample from a nearby stormwater ditch for salinity.
Nearby, Jacob Heap, 14, donned bright yellow rubber gloves in his search of phosphates in a different water sample while Zachary Alexander dipped a net into the water to see if the ditch was healthy enough to support life. It was, as determined by a fairly decent catch that included a baby shrimp, dragonfly nymph and a damselfly.
Spending a day at the park "is nice," said Grace. "You really get to learn — to do things out here. "I like it better. It's harder to learn this stuff at school."
That's the point behind LIFE, (Learning In Florida's Environment), a pilot program that, depending on funding, will continue to be implemented for some Chasco Middle students over the next 31/2 years.
The LIFE program, a collaboration between the Department of Environmental Protection and the Pasco County School District, is one of 12 being administered in school districts throughout Florida. The program, which targets underprivileged or underserved schools, is being funded for one year by a grant from the Florida Springs Initiative. The grant covers the cost of bus transportation, substitute teachers and a stipend for the equipment.
If the program continues to get funding, sixth-grade students will begin the program next year and will continue with it through their seventh- and eighth-grade years.
During this initial year, students are venturing out for three field trips to conduct on-site experiments at Werner Boyce Park and the Pasco Schools' Energy and Marine Center in Port Richey.
They also get pre- and post-field trip lessons to prepare for and enhance what they have been doing outdoors. The team of teachers involved in the program all attended a curriculum integration workshop and identified the skills and lessons they wanted to focus on.
"What's unique is that we're bridging all the subjects. We're all teaching something here," said Chasco Middle math teacher, Tom Landers, who was leading students through a series of soil studies. "This is great. They can touch it. They can feel it. It helps them to remember."
Students learn scientific methods and field skills while exploring, said Misty Alderman, one of two DEP Environmental Education Specialists that have been working with Chasco Middle students, their teachers and EMC environmental education instructor, Mark Butler.
Students use a GPS, compass and simple landmarks to learn about the history of navigation and hone mapping skills. Some use an auger to dig into the soil so they can note the difference between the wetland and upland terrain that are both part of the park's landscape.
They identify plant life. Then there's all that water testing going on in — depth, transparency, temperature, nitrates, phosphates, salinity — in three different spots in the park.
"We teach a lot of scientific stuff, but also the methods," said Alderman, noting that there is a strong emphasis on observation and inference skills. "The goal is to increase student achievement in science, increase teacher competency in teaching science and stewardship."
And it helps students in thinking, perhaps, about a career.
"Some of this equipment and methods are being used by scientists out in the field," Alderman said. "There are engineers who are out there doing this for a living.
"We're excited to have this program in Pasco County," said Butler, noting that he and the other teachers will be doing some grant writing and soliciting business and community members to keep the program running.
"The more opportunities these kids have, the better," Butler said. "These kids are really picking it up. They're really starting to get the concepts. This is their home — what they do now and in the future will impact their environment."