The Spring Hill Elementary School fifth-graders darted from plant to plant during their recent visit to the Springs Coast Environmental Education Center. They measured palmetto stems. They counted fronds and used a GPS tracking system over each individual plant to determine its exact location. Richard Inmon and Jennifer Gompers took their classes to the center to learn and practice exploration, measuring and observation skills. As the children moved up and down the sandy paths in groups, they recorded information on clipboards, filling in the sheets provided by the center's teacher, Cheryl Paradis.
"They're doing a plant survey of the saw palmettos," she said. The lessons included cooperation, taking measurements and calculating the plants' ages. The use of the GPS, Paradis said, instructs the students in longitude and latitude.
As she stood with one group, Paradis questioned them. "Do the plants have any evidence of fruiting bodies? Are they homes for insects?"
Justin Korp, 10, noticed the fruit. "They produce berries," he said, suggesting they could be eaten by black bears, raccoons, opossums and deer.
The students were also determining the saw palmettos' ages, determined by the height of the stem. "They grow 1.2 centimeters a year," Paradis said.
"We found one that was 113 years old," Justin said.
Before hitting the trail, the students were instructed in ecosystem facts. They received information about the palmettos and their importance to the area. Then the 37 students formed groups and set out to measure and observe as many of the 16 labeled plants as they could in the time they had.
"I think it's cool," Gompers said. "The kids are engaged. They're investigating and working together as really good teams."
"This is a really good thing for them to get ready for middle school," Paradis said.
After lunch, the children moved to a classroom to play a board game about conservation and water resources. They participated in a digital scavenger hunt, heading out with digital cameras on a search of animal tracks, ant piles, deer moss lichens, the palmettos and Spanish moss.
Another activity was building a water cycle model. Paradis put ice in bags and sealed them with air inside. The water melted, then evaporated, then condensed: the water cycle. "They see it right before their eyes," Paradis said.
The field trip bus ride was paid for by the Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union through its Suncoast for Kids Foundation.
Sixth-grade and fourth-grade visits are funded by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "Last year we had 6,400 kids who came to this beautiful place," Paradis said.