Abigail Ibarra swooped a butterfly net back and forth Tuesday as she walked through high grass at Starkey Environmental Education Center.
She snared a dragonfly, delicately pulled it out and placed the insect into a magnified viewing box.
Teacher Robin Carter approached the rising fifth-grader at Cox Elementary School to make sure none of the meaning got missed.
"Notice the characteristics," Carter said, pointing out the dragonfly's head, abdomen and thorax. She reminded Abigail and her study partner to take notes on their observation sheets for a later discussion on insect diversity in habitats with multiple forms of plants.
All around them, other girls from Cox and Lacoochee elementary schools waved their nets, capturing beetles, butterflies and spiders, and yielding some of the shrieks you might associate with girls who have just caught bugs.
Back at the education center, other groups of children learned about trees and leaves, animal paw prints and scat. A day earlier, they studied reptiles, water ecosystems and wilderness survival at Crystal Springs in eastern Pasco County.
"It's pretty much as hands-on and as close to science as they can get," Carter explained.
Making such connections is a crucial piece of the education puzzle for schools that are increasingly focused on accountability standards as measured by tests. Many educators were critical, for instance, that the FCAT writing exam for fourth-graders asked a question that presupposed children's knowledge of camels, when many had no exposure to the desert creatures.
To overcome the experience gap, Pasco County's Title I department serving low-income children created the Pasco Environmental Adventure Camp Experience three years ago. Children from some of the county's poorest families got the chance to attend a weeklong summer program at the school district's nature centers, learning science-based lessons they might not get in everyday life.
Since the camp's inception, Title I director Elena Garcia said, the schools have seen these children improve dramatically in their science academic performance as measured on FCAT and other assessments.
"We are seeing and hearing from science teachers that things aren't as foreign to the kids," Garcia said. "It's having the impact we wanted it to have."
The program nearly died for lack of funding this year, nonetheless.
The federal government reduced all its Title I grants and added new requirements for how to use the remaining amounts. Only a last-minute replenishment of the funds provided a clear source of revenue for the award-winning environmental camp and its partner technology camp, which combined are serving about 1,400 children from 27 schools this summer.
Children participating at the Starkey Ranch were glad to have the option. Many of them said they otherwise would have spent the time at home watching television, playing or simply doing nothing.
"I'm really having fun, because we get to do different things," said Caleb Davenport, also a Cox rising fifth-grader. "We get to make bandannas, whacking leaves with hammers to make marks. We learned animal tracks. We get to learn stuff about different kinds of animals.
"Yesterday we were learning about different types of animals in the water. We fished to see which ones we could catch," added Isaiah Ivey, another Cox rising fifth-grader. "In the last group we were learning about different types of trees and how old they are with their rings. . . . I think I like it. I'm into science."
Lacoochee Elementary rising fourth-grader Anna Gaccelle Vazquez shared their enthusiasm.
She talked with rapid excitement about the snakes and crustaceans she discovered at Crystal Springs during Monday's lessons, as she paused by the path at Starkey Ranch to watch two beetles roll a rock. She swished her net, but only caught the rock as the beetles scooted away.
"I can't wait for Thursday," she effused. "The Florida Aquarium is where we are going. Tomorrow kayaking. I like to be in the water. That's my favorite thing to be in."
Abigail, the dragonfly catcher, deemed the camp fun because of all the activities and lessons. She also declared it important for her future.
"Next year, we have FCAT for science," she said. "Now we know. That's why I came, because I don't want to be stupid."
Carter, her teacher, reminded Abigail that the FCAT doesn't decide if a person is smart or not. It's just a test, she said.
But the point was well taken, that the children wanted to learn more so they can meet the expectations set for them.
"I'm happy we can give needing kids opportunities like that," Garcia said.
The summer environmental and technology camps continue for the next three weeks, with different Title I schools rotating through them.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.