SPRING HILL — On a small wooden dock at the Cross Bar Ranch, Cynthia Brinker gingerly pokes through the trappings in her fishing net, plucking out a tiny creature to examine close up.
"What the heck is this?" the Weightman Middle School student wondered aloud, adding it to a shallow collection pan that already had an assortment of water bugs, mosquito fish and dragonfly nymphs swimming in the tannin-tinged water.
There was a definite "ick" factor for some students engaged in the freshwater fishing expedition — especially after learning that dragonfly nymphs suck in water through their anus and shoot it right out to propel themselves through the water.
But collecting slimy creatures was just part of a scientific process to determine biodiversity and the river's viability. And Cynthia was all in.
"I love getting to interact with nature," she said as resource environmental teacher Karen Stewart buzzed about, checking out the day's catch.
For Stewart, it was just another day working in paradise at the Cross Bar Ranch Environmental Education Center. But it was a first-time experience for most, if not all, the Weightman students who arrived that morning for the culminating activity in the Pasco County school district's Watershed Ambassadors Program.
This program for seventh-grade students is one of three environmental learning experiences Pasco County tailors for elementary, middle and high school students. Each starts in the classroom and ends with a field trip to one of Pasco's three environmental centers: the Energy and Marine Center in Port Richey, the Jay B. Starkey Park Wilderness Education Center in New Port Richey and Cross Bar Ranch in north-central Pasco.
While there, students get hands-on lessons about the importance of maintaining a healthy ecosystem and the Pithlachascotee watershed, which flows through all three environmental centers.
"I think it's essential for them to understand non-renewable resources, understand Florida water, Florida land, and all the organisms that live here, because they are quickly disappearing in this area," said Weightman science teacher, Laina Stafford.
For her, the practical, hands-on experience at the 12,440 acre ranch enhances the lessons she teaches on Florida ecosystems, land degradation and the workings of the Florida aquifer. "They actually see what we have been learning in the classroom," she said.
Weightman students tested and compared water samples taken from a nearby river and lake. They built a watershed model in a sandbox so they could better understand how water is naturally filtered into the aquifer. And they got an up-close look at a young (and endangered) gopher tortoise, plus a white-tailed deer that sprinted across a dirt road during their trek to the river.
There was more wildlife to take in on an afternoon safari ride, where Stewart promised a chance to see more deer, wild turkeys, sandhill cranes, osprey and vultures.
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Of vultures, Stewart joked, "They only eat dead things, so if you see them circling around, you might want to walk a little faster." She added that if students were lucky, they might also spot the elusive and endangered Florida scrub jay or a Sherman's fox squirrel, which feeds on slash pine seeds and is a species of concern because of human encroachment into their habitats.
Students would also see some of the 17 wells that contribute to the region's drinking water supply in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, parts of the working cattle ranch abutting the environmental center, and the on-site pine straw operation that generated $400,000 in revenue last year.
Stewart, who came on as the middle school environmental teacher two years ago, said the hope is that lessons here will inspire students to become life-long stewards of the environment while getting some insight on potential careers in the science or forestry fields,
Newer facets of the program include planting longleaf pines at Cross Bar Ranch and collecting and logging data for the Pasco County Parks department on tortoise burrow activity as well as the flora growing back after prescribed burns at Starkey Park.
"This is real life job application" Stewart said. "These students are replicating what scientists do in the field."
And having some fun, according to Cate Kemble, 12, who conducted and logged water testing experiments with Camila Zuluaga, 13, Savannah Brake, 12, and Lauralee Fuher, 12.
The activities were interesting and interactive, Cate said, as a gentle breeze blew through the outdoor lab. But the best thing to her about the experience? "Just that we're out here in nature."
Contact Michele Miller at email@example.com. Follow @MicheleMiller52.