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Pasco camp treats kids to hands-on scientific activities

The dissection of an owl pellet is a delicate and queasy task, one not meant for those with a sensitive nature.

The pellet, after all, is a compact mass of bones, beaks and fur — the undigested parts of prey regurgitated by an owl.

In short, owl puke.

"Ew" was the collective response from many youngsters who approached the ensuing task with scrunched-up faces during a lab activity this week at the Starkey Environmental Education Center at J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park.

But it was no problem for Jonathan McCoy, a red-headed 10-year-old with a penchant for all that is science.

"You have to be seriously, seriously careful," he said as he gingerly pulled out bits of fur with a pair of tweezers.

"Look at this, dude. We hit the jackpot," he said in awe, as he unveiled a tiny skull to be added to the pile of tiny bones he and his lab partner Nicholas Zsiga, 9, had collected.

"Now, there's a beauty."

Jonathan is one of 525 students enjoying a week-long adventure packed with hands-on science activities through the Pasco Environmental Adventure Camp Experience (PEACE). It's a whirlwind trip that rotates rising fourth- and fifth-grade students through a different learning site each day to live the scientific process.

At Starkey Park they studied plants and animal tracks and dissect owl pellets. At their trek to the Energy and Marine Center on the coast of Port Richey, they learned about the gulf oil spill, and made predictions and conducted experiments on how drops of an oily concoction might affect bird feathers and the brackish water of the Salt Springs estuary. They learned about the tiny creatures living in the coastal waters during a capture and release seining activity, and they explored the estuary for themselves in kayaks.

The camp also includes a trip to the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, complete with a behind-the-scenes tour, and another to the Crystal Springs preserve to conduct water experiments.

Finally a day is spent at Safety Town learning how to use a compass, collecting insects and doing more water quality experiments on a small lake.

"It's an amazing experience," said Bridget Lovelle, a teacher from Mary Giella Elementary, who on Monday oversaw the owl pellet dissection for her small group. "I love it. The kids love it. We're getting them out of the (school) classroom and putting them in a new environment where it's all hands-on, so it's a blast."

Most definitely a blast, said Jonathan — for a couple of reasons.

"First, because I love science and second, I like going places where you can interact and do fun things," he said. "And my mom was pretty excited, too, because it's free."

• • •

The science camp, now in its second year, is one of two offered this summer to students attending one of the 21 Title 1 schools in Pasco's lower income areas. Some 525 students are also attending a new two-week Technology Camp at various Title 1 schools. Each camp costs $80,000, and is covered by Title 1 funding.

The camps help bridge an economical and educational gap for Pasco's most financially disadvantaged students, and give kids an experience they might not otherwise have, said Elena Garcia, Pasco's Title 1 supervisor. She coordinated the two camp programs with Pasco's supervisor of science, Laura Hill, and various employees in the district's instructional media center.

The technology camp blends writing standards with the use of digital equipment and culminates with students creating their own podcast. It has been done on a smaller scale through the migrant program, Garcia said.

"Our goal there was to close the digital divide," she said. "Today a lot of kids have access to computers, digital cameras and iPods at home. Obviously the neediest kids don't."

As for the science camp, well there are lots of students who have never been to the Florida Aquarium or had the chance to glide through coastal waters or bump up against the mangroves in a bright yellow kayak.

"Some of these kids have never seen the gulf — at least some of the kids from the east side of the county," Garcia said. "We wanted to give them that experience."

One that was enjoyed, no doubt, by kids like Alexis Heffner, 10, who was busy making oil spill predictions at the Energy and Marine Center.

"It's fun," she said. "I love nature, and science is pretty much nature."

Then there was 10-year-old Matthew Mayer, who was sporting a wide, winner's grin on Tuesday as he paddled well past the others during his very first kayak race through the Salt Springs Estuary.

"See you later," he said, as he paddled on by, leaving the rest in his wake.

Michele Miller can be reached at miller@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6251.

Pasco camp treats kids to hands-on scientific activities 06/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 23, 2010 9:57pm]

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