NEW PORT RICHEY
They are tiny, fragile creatures, measuring less than an inch a week after being expelled from their father's pouch. On Thursday there were just six baby sea horses bobbing around in the small tank in Laine Smith's marine science classroom.
"That's all there's left out of about 60," said Danielle Montanez, the 17-year-old River Ridge High senior who's responsible for cleaning the tank and feeding brine shrimp to the babies during third period.
Only two survived from the batch born last year. The six remaining sea horses are their babies.
"Out in the wild they have over 500 to 2,000 babies and only one will live," Danielle said, noting that some can perish from simply swallowing an air bubble that's resting on the top of the water.
In the end, they might all die, said Smith. It's something you just have to get used to when dealing with aquatic life. Besides, the male is already "pregnant" again, since the female recently deposited her eggs into his pouch. Sea horses, it turns out, can churn out babies every two to three weeks.
So the high infant mortality rate isn't unusual.
But the fact that sea horses are breeding and bearing their young in captivity in a high school classroom is.
At least that's what folks from around the globe have been telling Smith.
Within an hour after putting out some feelers about her sea horse breeding classroom venture, Smith got about a dozen e-mail responses from places like the Deep Earth Academy/Consortium for Ocean Leadership, Australia's Environmental Protection Agency, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the South Carolina Aquarium and more.
That kind of input from near and far has become a valuable tool for Smith, who has figured out how to use the telephone and Internet to network and create some exciting opportunities for her students.
This year Smith compiled a bounty of education enhancements that have students propagating live coral, comparing research on how heat affects live coral with schools in Ohio and Texas, and going on online expeditions in the Florida Keys and Antarctica.
Up next? Growing phytoplankton — a microscopic plant — in the classroom and using Skype software to meet with a marine biologist in the Philippines on the Internet.
Networking wasn't always easy for the typically reserved Smith, who has been teaching marine science at River Ridge for 11 years. But after sorting through her first donation from a local pet store — a drawer filled with old aquarium parts — Smith realized there were probably others willing to help.
"I found a whole new side of myself when I started making these calls," she said.
Smith has received a bounty. Aquarium pumps, heaters, live coral and other supplies were donated by the Tampa Bay Reef Club. The sea horses were a donation from Aquatic Visions in Port Richey. Some classroom aquariums were made from sheets of acrylic that came from Lucite International.
"There's so much out there and I've networked enough that I know where to look now," Smith said. "The biggest problem we face now is general maintenance. We still need to replace lights and filters, which is finally starting to hit the pocketbook. But my students are able to do things and observe things that would normally cost thousands of dollars each year."
As donations and outside input have grown, so has Smith's hands-on curriculum, which is essential in teaching science.
"When you just use a (text) book, a lot of these kids just shut down," Smith said. "Science is experimentation, observation, trial and error. We do all that here."
During third period last Thursday, some students researched scientific terms on laptop computers while Cody Brown, 17, tended to his tank filled with live coral, clown fish and an eel.
Devon Sheehan, 16, Kelly Carter, 17, and Gillian McInnis, 17, were using a microscope and Sony camera to create an iMovie of the various organisms found in water samples.
Mark Cooper and Corey Lapp, both 18, donned safety glasses and plastic gloves to frag, or propagate, coral. The procedure, to preserve and limit what is harvested from natural coral reefs, involves cutting pieces of live coral from shells and gluing them to special cement plugs.
The plugs are then placed in an aquarium, an aquatic garden of sorts that is filled with various corals — candy cane, devil's hand, yellow polyps — that the students have been propagating since October.
"It's fun," said Lapp, who is contemplating a future in oceanography. "It's nice to come in here and see them blossoming."
And across the room, Samantha Hostetler, 16, Jacob Smith, 16, Katie Rooney, 17, and Debra Sparr, 17, brainstormed to come up with recycling activities that might appeal to elementary age children.
The four, fresh back from the Florida Aquarium's Regional Ocean Conference, plan to visit four local elementary schools in May with an educational program that will help persuade others to recycle.
"We think that kids are the generation to come," Katie said. "We hope we can teach them and then they can teach their parents."
That's the idea. Going full circle. Pushing forward from one person to the next.
"There are a lot of people that want to help," Smith said. "There are lots of experts out there that can be a great resource in here. I see the impact that they are making now."
"Every day I'm learning."
And so, it seems, are her students.