Thomas Webb didn't think twice before writing down his prediction for his day of activities at the Cross Bar Ranch preserve.
"I think we're going to see a lot of different animals," the Marlowe Elementary fifth-grader said as he recorded his thoughts into his journal. "We're going to see turkeys and stuff."
Moments later, two white-tailed deer wandered into the field just outside the classroom where 54 children had gathered to begin a week of science camp.
"They're both does," Thomas said, grinning ear to ear. "I like science."
But many children attending schools in Pasco's lower income areas have fewer opportunities to experience science outside of school than other children who have money for science camp or trips to the museum.
Hoping to bridge that gap, the school district set aside $35,000 to send 450 fourth- and fifth-graders who can least afford such things to a week of science lessons at the district's four environmental centers. The goal is to supplement their science knowledge in the time leading up to the science FCAT, which has proven vexing for schools across Florida — and to do it in a fun, hands-on way.
Discoveries along trail
Most of the students who started this week at Cross Bar Ranch had not been there before, not to mention Crystal Springs or the Energy and Marine Center they'll visit later in the week. And although many of them have been to the district's fourth center at J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park, many never had seen a deer in the wild.
"Kids remember things like this," said Elena Garcia, Pasco's Title I supervisor, who coordinated the project over three weeks for 19 elementary schools. "These connections will come to them very easily in the classroom."
That certainly was the case for Marlowe fifth-graders Madeline Guerrero and Austin Fisher. The two 10-year-olds soaked in teacher Mark Butler's talk about "bio facts" — that would be the evidence animals leave behind that shows they had been there — and couldn't wait to put the information to use.
As the campers hiked into the pines Monday morning behind the classroom with Butler, Maddie and Austin lagged behind. Trail guides in hand, they walked slowly with their eyes cast downward to the dirt path below them, pausing to examine every impression, hole and mark they encountered.
"I found one! A deer track!" Austin called out, dropping to his knees to get a closer look.
Maddie flipped open the guide to determine whether her friend got it right.
"I saw the mule deer didn't have dew claws," she said. "I found the difference. It's the white-tailed deer."
The pair headed off to discover tracks from a gopher tortoise, an otter and other denizens of the preserve. Gray and gold feathers helped them figure out a turkey had been near, while a small hole in the ground signaled that an armadillo had been nosing around for food.
"This is cool," Maddie said, echoing the sentiment of pretty much all the kids there.
Farther along the trail, Butler instructed the others how to identify what animal had left a pile of poop behind. (The light brown fur in one set signaled that it belonged to a coyote. The berry seeds in another pointed to a raccoon.)
He showed the kids how to determine whether a deer had been running or walking, based on the space between the prints, and how to differentiate between tracks and holes.
The students — many of whom would have been at home "doing nothing" if not here — listened in silence before heading off to their next discovery.
"In school, you're pretty much just sitting there talking about it," explained Alicia Boloyan, another Marlowe fifth-grader, as she ended her 30-minute trek and headed back to do a related art project. "When you're here, you actually get to do it. It makes (science) a little bit easier."
After lunch, the group also learned about trees and owls, rotating through all three centers at the preserve before the end of the day. Later in the week they'll study water quality, fish, turtles, kayaking, spiders, gopher tortoises and compasses.
Feedback for the new program from the first two weeks of students has been so positive that the district already is looking into doing it again next summer.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.