It was one of those incredibly beautiful days at the Pasco County School District's Energy and Marine Center, but the tide was being none too kind to the young fishers from Schrader Elementary School. They were thigh-high, working in teams to drag the large, white seining nets to the inlet's small shore with the hopes of finding some creatures to observe.
The first time through is typically sparse, warned their instructor, Donna Hoague as she plucked a black mangrove pod out of a mostly empty net.
Then she sent them right back in with the easy-to-remember direction: "Flip it and dip it."
After five or six passes they had collected a modest representation of inhabitants of the coastal nursery — a few gooey egg sacks, a dozen or so tiny mojarras and a fine looking baby blue crab gently dropped in a 5-gallon bucket.
The estuary is where marine life is often born and kept sheltered by mangrove roots, oyster beds and pier pilings before heading out into the wide open gulf. The Energy and Marine Center, nestled along the shore of the Salt Springs Run estuary, is also where Pasco County fourth-graders come to learn about the important role the mangroves, oyster beds, the marsh and the adjacent hammock play in the food chain as well as the impact the estuary has on the world and the environment.
This year the EMC is playing host to field trips for fourth-graders from 45 elementary schools and science students in grades 9-12 from 12 high schools. While high school activities are geared to meet the varied curricula of individual teachers, fourth-grade students follow one curriculum provided by the EMC.
"The teachers come to training and implement pre-lessons in the classrooms and then they come here for a field experience. They come here to see what they've learned first-hand," Hoague said, noting that, "a lot of kids have never been out to see the estuary."
Throughout the day students move through three stations and a variety of hands-on activities taught by Hoague and fourth-grade teachers from the visiting schools who have undergone prior training.
"It's wonderful," said Schrader Elementary fourth-grade teacher Kristin Tassone . "They (students) actually put into practice what they have seen and read in the classroom. The videos just don't do it justice."
"They're going to take away so much from just getting into the water, said fellow Schrader fourth-grade teacher Kim Thompson. "They get so much more out of it than reading about it in a book."
Students take on the role of marine scientists — collecting plankton from the brackish water to observe under microscopes in the lab; pulling nets through the waters to see what creatures are being nurtured in the mangroves in the estuary and digging their way through oyster clusters to find a different hidden treasure — sea worms, mollusks and tiny crabs.
"I just can't wait to see what the plankton is going to look like," said Cassidy Richardson, 9, as students made their way from collecting samples on the boardwalk pier to an upstairs lab to create slides to observe under a microscope.
Students also learn about the space/earth connection and how tides are affected by the pull of the moon's gravity. And they get some insight on three renewable energy sources that help power the small coastal campus — a solar panel on the office roof, a wind generator that powers small equipment in an adjacent work shed and a geo-thermal system that cools and heats a small meeting room/lunchroom.
Of course the best part of the day is the time spent doing, whether it's fishing with nets in the shallow, brackish waters of the estuary or fishing through a pile of oyster clutches laid out on a picnic table in search of hidden treasures.
"That was so cool," said Juan Ayala, 9, after finding a tiny crab scuttling among the clutches. "I was surprised to see him."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected]