What a way to start the day. ¶ A little after 10 a.m. Mark Butler stood under a clear blue sky on a bobbing dock at the Energy and Marine Center teaching the fine art of catching baby fish and other assorted creatures to about 15 students from Mitchell High. ¶ "The key to seining," said Butler, demonstrating as he spoke, "is making sure the net is spread out as far as possible, then tilting the net and dragging it back in." ¶ "And don't forget to do the stingray shuffle. We do have stingrays here." ¶ Two at a time, the students in Dennis Koslin's marine science class hopped in the water with their nets and waded waist deep into the brackish water.
"Ew, I'm in the seaweed!" Melanie Estabrook, 17, squealed as she scrunched up her face.
But before long, dismay turned to delight as the students shuffled back in and rested their nets on the dock to examine their catch.
"Holy cow! A shrimp with eggs!"
"We got a needle fish and a pinfish … and a blue crab!"
"We got a shrimp and a weird species!"
The experience was a real eye-opener for teens like Kelsey Seward, 16. "When we go to the Keys lobstering, we see all these things and I say, 'What are they?' Now, I know."
And it was a second chance of sorts for Ariell Greene, 17, who distinctly remembers the field trip she took to the Energy and Marine Center as a fourth-grader at Seven Springs Elementary.
"I was too afraid to go seining then," Ariell said. "I did better this time, but it was still a little iffy."
In the course of a few hours, Butler and Koslin led their students through a variety of activities sure to educate them about the great value of the Pasco coastline.
It's not Clearwater Beach — and believe it or not, that is a good thing.
The Pasco coastline, with its black, red and white mangroves and mucky seabed, offers essential nutrients and shelter for the baby grouper, flounder, stone crabs and blue crabs that will one day feed the gulf and humans, too. It also offers protection from storm flooding for those humans who reside along the coast.
Nestled in the Salt Springs Estuary, the Energy and Marine Center has long served as an educational environmental trip for elementary students in Pasco County. Building upon that are other programs for middle school students at Starkey Park and Cross Bar Ranch.
Up until recently, a handful of high school teachers brought their students to the Energy and Marine Center, Starkey Park and Cross Bar Ranch to teach them on their own. "But there really wasn't anything at the high school level," Butler said.
Butler, who previously taught advanced placement environmental science and served as a marine biologist for the University of Florida, is the new high school environmental resource teacher for Pasco County schools.
Part of his duties include training other teachers on instructing programs at Pasco's three environmental centers, as well as at Brooker Creek Preserve in Pinellas County.
He's also big on promoting the new, more formal high school program. So far, Butler is pleased with the results. This year, science teachers from Mitchell High, Zephyrhills High, Sunlake High and Hudson High have brought their students to the various centers.
Still, Butler would like to see more students given the opportunity to experience the site.
In the course of a few hours, high school students learn new words such as "ecotone" — the place where two ecosystems, perhaps a desert and a marsh, overlap. They learn how mangrove islands are created and how sand balls are formed by foraging fiddler crabs.
When the tide is right, they seine for a bit and paddle their way through the estuary in kayaks. Then they venture to higher and somewhat dryer ground and embark on a hammock hike, in which they study animal tracks and look for signs of predator interaction, erosion and human impact.
In the end they return to an open-window classroom, don blue gloves and delve with tweezers into an oyster clutch to find and categorize the tiny stone crabs, mollusks and flatworms that have camped out there.
They are also required to find and pick up five pieces of trash.
No doubt, the trip to the EMC is a highlight for Mitchell High teacher Dennis Koslin, who has been taking students there, off and on, for the past nine years.
"I love it," Koslin said. "I wish all the kids could get out and do hands-on, like this. If the kids are educated, then they become environmental-educated adults."
The goal, said Butler, is "to enlighten them."
"These children are our future. They're the ones that will be making legislative decisions and creating policy that is going to impact our world."