CRYSTAL SPRINGS — The four girls stared at the chain-link fence at the edge of the Crystal Springs Preserve and knew they weren't in the right place.
The team of Double Branch Elementary fourth- and fifth-graders — Cynthia Rodriguez, Daniela Artega, Sofia Millar and Hanna Erdman — had a GPS tracker and a compass to guide them toward the coordinates of the "curved tree," where they would find a puzzle piece left behind by some Long Middle School sixth-graders.
But the girls grew frustrated as they tromped back and forth, unable to find the spot despite their best intentions.
"This is the hardest one of all of them," fifth-grader Cynthia lamented, noting they found their first three locations much more quickly.
Environmental resource teacher Mark Butler approached with a grin on his face, knowing the group was lost. He took the compass and reviewed how to find the right direction, then showed them how they were too far east.
The girls trekked back toward the spring, swatting bugs and avoiding branches, until they found the plastic bucket buried beside a curving oak, scant steps from the geocache they had found about 20 minutes earlier.
"Oh! There it is!" Cynthia shouted. "Wow. We went all the way down there, and we walked right past this tree."
The group members laughed together as they pulled a puzzle piece from the bucket, scribbled some notes on a notepad inside and replaced it beside the tree for the next group of elementary students scheduled to come.
Theirs was the final act in a three-part high-tech scavenger hunt for the Wiregrass Ranch High feeder school pattern. Back in February, some Wiregrass Ranch freshmen selected the precise locations to hide each stash, logging in the longitude and latitude coordinates using global position tracking.
A couple of weeks later, about 50 Long Middle School sixth-graders returned to the preserve to place puzzle pieces and notepads at each of the sites, following the directions created by the high-schoolers.
On Monday, the students from Double Branch came out to discover what the older students had left behind. Kids from New River, Sand Pine and Seven Oaks elementary schools will come out to hunt for the same spots, collecting puzzle pieces that create a picture of the preserve.
"I think it's very exciting," said fifth-grader Brian Swartzfager, as he stopped to check out a giant lubber grasshopper crawling up the evergreen tree where he and his teammates had found their first cache.
"This is like playing," chimed in teammate Ryen Temen, also a fifth-grader.
Teachers said they loved the students' enthusiasm. It cemented in their minds that hands-on learning works better than simply giving kids abstract information.
"Our goal is to do more projects like this," Double Branch science teacher Jennifer May said. "We really want to bring science into the classroom and not just out of the textbook."
Samuel Parisi, Wiregrass Ranch High's technology specialist who coordinated the project, said the geocaching lesson brought multischool collaboration to a new level. He looks forward to trying other joint ventures in the future.
Double Branch PTA president Judy Johnson, who had two children participate (one at Double Branch and another at Long), welcomed the effort.
"I think it's a great idea," she said, as she walked with her fourth-grade son, Brendon, through the preserve. "It's kind of the community at work. … This is awesome."
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.