If you stand very still and be very quiet you can hear the sound of water trickling. Slide your fingers across the walls and you can feel real fossils that were discovered on the grounds just outside the door behind you. Look upwards and its blue sky you see, because that's where the water bubbles up toward, flowing into the clear, native springs that are Florida's treasure.
The "underwater cave" is a foyer of sorts — a manufactured real-life experience that serves as entry into a 54-foot-long learning lab on wheels designed to teach thousands of kids about the importance of the Florida aquifer.
"Make sure you explore and read whatever you can," is the first command of Sarah Todd, one of two educators who serve as tour guides on the mobile classroom. "And touch everything."
Last week, 100 fourth-grade students from Wesley Chapel Elementary School had the opportunity to do just that as the Crystal Springs Foundation and Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water unveiled their new WaterVentures Learning Lab at Crystal Springs Preserve.
It was a test run for the mobile lab that was scheduled to head to Miami so students there could get a taste of the lessons Crystal Springs has to offer while encouraging them to become thoughtful keepers of the state's essential resource. State Sen. John Legg, an educator who co-founded Dayspring Academy charter school, also was in attendance and spoke briefly about the value of hands-on learning in the natural setting. Robert Thomas, whose family owns Crystal Springs, shared some history of the preserve, which once was a favored childhood swimming hole, then a popular recreation area before his family bought the land to save it for future generations.
Each year about 50,000 central Florida students make the trek to the 525-acre preserve to interact with nature and partake in a variety of hands-on activities that are funded, in part, by the bottling of spring water by Nestle Waters (parent company of Zephyrhills Spring Water). But that was about all the kids the preserve can handle, so stewards opted to expand their outreach by hitting the road. Building and operating the lab costs about $1.3 million, but Karen Pate said it's a very good investment — particularly if you can get your message to 100,000 more youngsters a year, as planned.
"The preserve has reached capacity for daily input," said Pate, vice president of the Crystal Springs Foundation. "We want to take a slice of native Florida and what we do at Crystal Springs and take it out there."
Pate was instrumental in the planning and design of the educational aspects of the mobile classroom.
Lessons, Pate said, are geared to "capture zone" students, who will make a bigger impact by spreading the environmental message to their families.
"Hopefully it becomes a way of life for them," Pate said. "And in six years these kids will be voters — educated voters."
Save for the primitive feel of the "underwater" cave, the lab is a high-tech experience with activities held inside and out. The trailer-wide exhibit is brimming with buttons to push, knobs to turn and giant touch screens that spout environmental facts with an easy tap of a finger. Students can play a game called H2O while learning about the water cycle from precipitation to evaporation, or push a button or light up the various bodies of water both above and underground in Florida. They can pick their own adventure as a water drop flowing from a river that takes them to an estuary full of mangrove trees, a saw grass bed or ultimately swallowed by a crab. They can take turns sorting animated recyclables on a giant touchscreen or venture to a learning station outside to use toy-like figurines and buildings to create their own environmentally sound community.
In the end, students take what they will from the experience and get a little prodding from their instructors who ask, "What did you learn?" before the kids disembark.
"You can build a whole playground from recycled stuff," said Gariona Love, 10, when called upon.
"You can save more water by taking a bath rather than a 10-minute shower," Kyra Barreno, 9, piped up.
There is definite buy-in from kids like Timothy Kovacs, 9, who said, "This is so awesome — so much fun with all the giant screens and the games."
And while Peyton Sessuns, 9, said she enjoyed her high-tech trek through the mobile lab, her favorite part of the day was simply being outdoors.
"The springs are amazing looking," she said as she lined up with class for lunch. "This is such a great place for kids to learn. You can see things; touch things to see how they feel. It's just an amazing learning experience."