1. The Education Gradebook

Students spend a Saturday on the water, learning about scallops

SPRING HILL — Sometimes it's a good idea to get outside to learn stuff.

Just ask students at Gulf Coast Academy and Gulf Coast Middle School, who head out to the Gulf of Mexico each year at the beginning and the end of scalloping season.

The scallops are a tasty side benefit.

"Scalloping is an extension of our marine science education, because scallops are mollusks and have a unique life cycle," said Joe Gatti, director of curriculum and instruction for the two charter schools. "They have beautiful, iridescent blue eyes."

Scallops can have up to 100 eyes that detect motion and light changes.

The recent trip to the gulf was one of many scheduled Saturday adventures that the school offers. For this year, those include catamaran sailing, an overnight camping trip, a visit to the University of South Florida to see its engineering expo and a trip to the Fort Drum crystal mine to hunt for fossilized clams.

During the gulf trip, seven students snorkeled in 2 to 7 feet of water, supervised by field activity program leaders Emily Stafford and Daniel Jones, as well as Gatti.

"In sixth grade on the very first FAP (field activity program) activity, we practiced snorkeling," said seventh-grader Jordyn Wallace, 12.

The group traveled out to a shoal split between a 24-foot Carolina skiff and a 21-foot Boston whaler. One of the students, eighth-grader Rylee Jones, 13, shared the driving responsibilities. At the end of seventh grade, students at the two schools take a Florida water boating safety offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, so Rylee was ready.

Once there, they plopped into the water.

"We had to be able to dive down to the bottom and to snorkel," Rylee said.

Seventh-grader Blake Slepecki, 12, joined the excursion for a number of reasons.

"I wanted to learn how to spot scallops, how they move, how to open them, what parts you eat and what parts you can't," he said.

And Blake found out that scallop hunting can be difficult.

"The wind was kicking in, and there was very low visibility," he said.

Jordyn is an experienced scalloper, having gone many times with her family, but she still learned things about the elusive mollusks.

"It is an advantage for them to hide," she said. She also noticed that "they keep pulsing when their shell is cracked open." Which, she mentioned, is not easy.

Blake also observed, "They like to live in sea grass, seaweed, any place where they can hide."

Rylee found out scallops have nine hearts, and "they range in size a lot."

"But the size we were looking for, they were about 1½ to 3 inches," Blake added.

So how did they do?

"I only found one," Blake said.

Jordyn found two, and Rylee six.

"That's why we pooled the scallops at the end of the day," Gatti said. The 20 or so they found were divvied up among those who wanted some.

The scallops were opened while the students were still out on their excursion, not just to show them how to do it, but for environmental reasons. Uneaten parts are thrown back into the water for other sea creatures, Gatti explained, as opposed to throwing shells and inedible parts into the trash.

Blake, Rylee and Jordyn appreciate the schools' effort to provide activities like this one.

"It helps by getting out of the classroom and actually doing something and learning physically instead of learning on a paper," Blake said. "You're more likely to remember it."

According to Jordyn, the outings are valuable because the students are "not sitting down and not watching TV on Saturday." Also, she said, "It's fun."

"Not many people get to do it," Rylee said. "Most schools don't offer things like this, so you have more education."

Another reason for the trips, which Gatti mentioned, is the various backgrounds of the students.

"A lot of these kids don't have boats," he said. "To me, that's one of the main reasons to have Saturday adventures. Different families have different resources."