CRYSTAL SPRINGS — Long Middle School sixth-grader Jonathan Dell read the coordinates off his list and punched them into his handheld global positioning system.
He gestured toward the spring that feeds the Hillsborough River, and he and his team of explorers headed off to seek the spot that a group of Wiregrass Ranch High freshmen had mapped out a couple of weeks earlier. Their goal: a tree with a hole in the trunk.
Jonathan held the GPS monitor in front of him as the foursome trudged through Crystal Springs Preserve on their geocaching adventure, the second of three parts of the high-tech scavenger hunt involving the entire Wiregrass Ranch High feeder pattern.
The monitor told them they were far enough west, but they needed to head a bit farther north.
Ryan Girard pulled out his compass to confirm they were walking in the right direction. (For a while, they weren't, so the boys found themselves circling.)
Meanwhile, Jarred Lanier and Devin Duckett used the physical description of the site, focusing on the "hole in the trunk" part, to scan for the site. Jarred shouted excitedly, "I found it! I found it!" — a fact the GPS confirmed.
The boys pulled out a plastic box filled with a notepad, pen and puzzle pieces for the elementary school students who will follow in a few weeks. They wrote a quick note and stashed the box into the hole.
Then Devin recorded observations about the location, such as the minty smell and the wild coffee growing nearby, to make the younger kids' hunt a bit easier.
"I think it's pretty fun," Jarred said of the event. "It's better than doing things in the classroom."
On that point even the teachers agreed.
"They're active. And especially at this age, they need to be active," social studies teacher Teresa Cowart said, discussing her excitement at the chance to bring her students to the outdoor preserve to learn about longitude and latitude.
"They can see how this is being used and why it's important. That just makes a world of difference."
Student Monica Mammah saw the point.
"You can see things better than you imagine them in your head," she explained.
Science teacher Estelle Lischalk said she hoped the many lessons, from experiencing Florida's environment to preparing materials for the elementary students, would be impressed on the sixth-graders.
"I hope they get the idea that this is bigger than the classroom," Lischalk said.
Ryan got that message.
"It's cool," he said, as his group prepared to find one of its two geocache sites. "You usually get taught, but you're teaching, too."
Ryan, like many of his classmates, also wanted to see snakes. They got their wish when the preserve staff found a molting snake, either a black racer or an indigo, and showed it to everyone.
The kids also got to see baby lubber grasshoppers, woodpeckers and all sorts of fish, not to mention several varieties of trees and plants including poison ivy (three leaves, red vine, don't touch). It's stuff they don't get to see every day in Wesley Chapel, where most of them live.
And they learned lessons even beyond what the teachers expected.
"The most important thing we learned was how to work together and not fight," Devin said. "We did good."
Next up, another 25 Long Middle students will head out to the preserve to finish hiding the puzzle pieces.
Later this spring, students from Double Branch, Seven Oaks, Quail Hollow and Sand Pine elementary schools will go to find them.
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.