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Marine experts (in eighth grade)

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Braxon Shenn has some serious concerns for a 13-year-old. He worries about pollution and overdevelopment. He laments the diminishing mangroves and coral reefs. He frets about the fate of Florida's endangered plants and animals.

He wants to be a marine biologist when he grows up, but he doesn't want to wait until then to start protecting the environment. As an eighth-grader at Madeira Beach Middle School, the county's only marine environment theme school, he has found a way to start making a difference now.

Braxon is one of 28 students in a marine environmental action class at the school, 591 Madeira Beach Causeway. The students, recommended for the class by their science teachers and guidance counselors, recently completed an intensive six-week training session to hone their marine knowledge and presentation skills. They will spend two mornings a week between now and May acting as environmental docents, leading Pinellas County elementary students on marine field trips.

The brainchild of social studies teacher Eric Bardes, the class was created three years ago after the school district added Madeira Beach Middle School to its site list for fourth-grade field trips. Previously, the list was limited to freshwater environmental education centers such as the Moccasin Lake, Sawgrass Lake and Boyd Hill Nature parks. Because Boca Ciega Bay is in the school's back yard, it gives students the opportunity to engage in a saltwater environment, said Tom Stanton, Pinellas County schools' supervisor of elementary science and social studies.

"This is a very unique experience for the students and for the boys and girls who come and visit," he said. "When you think about environmental education, you think not only about the plants and animals. It's also about what we can do to protect the resources in the area in which we live."

Combining marine education and social studies was Mr. Bardes' goal when he developed the curriculum for the environmental action class.

"(The students) understand the importance of the environment. They learned that in seventh grade," he said. "Now they're sharing (their knowledge) with the young people who will carry on their love for the environment and the need to preserve what we have."

The students' training period acquainted them with their school's unique features, including the wet lab, dock, mangrove trail, xeriscape gardens and 9,789-square-foot marine science building. Each docent is assigned a specific duty, but their jobs rotate, so they need to be familiar with every aspect of the environment, Mr. Bardes said.

On Thursday, they put their training to work. They greeted a busload of 23 Orange Grove Elementary fourth-graders and outfitted them with clipboards and worksheets. They divided them into small groups, each headed by two field docents, and spread out over the 18-acre campus.

Stacey Nelson and Hannah Lawson, both 13, led a group to the dock, where they met station docents Darren Lawecki, 13, and Jason Freeman, 14. Jason used a hydrometer to measure the salt content in a bucket of water drawn from the bay. Next, he measured water turbidity, or cloudiness, with a black and white device called a Secchi dish. The metal crab trap he hoisted was empty, but a sweep of his 6-foot cast net produced several pinfish and a glass minnow for the students' inspection.

Station docents Jazzy Simons and Christina Johnson, both 13, welcomed the group when it arrived at the marine trail. Jazzy explained that the 756-foot boardwalk, built in 1998, winds through a mangrove habitat populated by raccoons, rabbits and a host of endangered plants.

She pointed out a black mangrove's network of roots and the breathing tubes, called "dead man's fingers," that suck up nutrients from the sand and cause white salt crystals to form on the undersides of the leaves. She also showed them the long, trailing "prop" roots of a red mangrove, explaining that they earned it the nickname "walking tree."

Christina told them about the Brazilian pepper tree, illegal in Florida except for educational purposes, which left untended would crowd out the mangroves and rob them of their sunlight. She also pointed out a couple of cabbage palms, home to bats and insects.

Stacey and Hannah moved the students along to the lagoon, where station docent Nick Bella, 13, explained that the protected area was a perfect environment for a fish nursery. A sweep of his cast net turned up a baby mangrove snapper, a mullet and a freshwater guppy, which he held out for the students and then returned to the water.

Their next stop was the beach, where Ashley Kenney and Chelsea Zalopany, both 13, were pulling on black rubber boots. The girls grabbed the ends of a large seine net and waded out into the bay to a spot where sea grass turned the water a deep turquoise. Meanwhile, Robbie Searage, 13, directed the students' attention to a dozen tiny holes in the sand. He explained that the holes were made by fiddler crabs, which suck nutrition from the sand and then spit back little sand balls.

When Ashley and Chelsea came back to the beach, they laid the seine net on the sand, revealing a treasure trove of tiny marine creatures. Silver jennies mingled with pinfish and broken-back shrimp. Pipe fish stood on end in a clump of sea grass. A tiny blue crab scurried back toward the water. The docents invited the children to gently stroke a brown mangrove snapper, then gathered up the net and returned their catch to the bay.

Before the tour was over, the students visited the marine science building's 550- and 350-gallon touch tanks and the tank room's 30 aquariums. They glimpsed marine organisms through microscopes and stopped in the library to peruse a display case filled with scallops, whelks, cockle shells and sea fans collected by marine science students. They also visited the xeriscape gardens, where they learned the importance of native plants such as porter weed and spider lilies.

Knowledgeable docents at each station showered them with information and answered their questions. Fourth-grade teacher Mary Kenady was impressed.

"They handled my class very nicely," she said. "When their attention started to wander, they knew exactly how to bring the children back to them."

Mrs. Kenady, who has been teaching for 30 years, reserved the field trip early this year because she knows the openings fill quickly. She took advantage of the instructional packet of lessons Mr. Bardes sent her before the field trip, and she plans to assign more activities this week, including an essay, to strengthen her students' expository writing skills.

The docents also will do follow-up work. Their educational experience is not complete, Mr. Bardes said, until they assess their efforts.

"After every tour, we have a class meeting," he said. "If there are negative things, we try to work those out. If there are positive things, we reinforce them on the next tour.

They also are open to suggestions, such as the one that came from Allen Beswick, 9. The fourth-grader was thrilled to touch a "squishy" sting ray in the touch tank but wished he could have had a shot at flinging the cast net himself.

Principal Brenda Poff is pleased with the students' willingness to work with the younger students, applauding their increasing presentation skills and environmental knowledge.

"We see these eighth-grade docents really bloom," she said. "The docents have not only become quite articulate in presentation skills, but very knowledgeable as environmental stewards. Their leadership skills, confidence, marine stewardship and advocacy add up to a lot of potential."