The sixth-graders from Dunedin Highland Middle School spilled out of the bus and ran to the shore on Honeymoon Island. The dozens of students were excited: Nature would be their classroom for the day. "Instead of just learning from a book, we get to do hands-on stuff," said Angelica Morse, 11. On Thursday, the school kicked off a two-year, $50,000 effort to have its students do more of that "hands-on stuff" as they study the environment. The school's proximity to the state park — 8 miles — helped it win the grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, one of eight schools from Gulf Coast states to get it. "Hands-on experience for the kids will stick," said sixth-grade science teacher Ann Meredith. "It's a lasting experience because they get a chance to do it themselves."
Teachers prepared students to participate in field labs called "Observation and Inference" and "Gulf Shoreline."
With the help of staffers from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, students made hypotheses about their observations of the beach, with subjects ranging from sea shells to a dolphin skull.
Students in the Gulf Shoreline lab split into three groups: the Surfers, the Beach Combers and the Lifeguards.
The Surfers stood by the water, measuring wave frequency and the slope of the beach. On the sand, the Beach Combers looked at sand particle composition and measured the drift on the beach, seeing how long it took a tennis ball to travel a certain distance on the shore.
The Lifeguards also stood on the sand, determining which direction the wind traveled and using a GPS to learn about the tides.
Teachers had prepped students before they left school to give them an understanding of what they would be doing, but "seeing it in action is exciting," Meredith said.
In addition to field labs about the environment, students also will participate in park cleanup efforts.
"I think it will give a knowledge-base to appreciate nature and the environment," Meredith said.
The school hopes the project's benefits will go beyond environmental education.
"When students are in field-based labs, all skill sets will be helped, not just the sciences," said Brenda Poff, the school's principal.
For 12-year-old Nathan Sorokurs, the prospect of visiting Honeymoon Island boils down to one thing: "Beaches are fun."
Gytis Garsys is a senior at Tampa Preparatory and a staff writer for tb-two*, the Times' weekly newspaper for high school students.