Leaving books and pencils behind last week, Tommie Barfield Elementary (TBE) fourth graders donned water shoes and sunscreen and headed to the unique eco-system of Tigertail Beach to learn with hands on experiences.
TBE teacher, Christine Farhat said she wanted her students to understand their role as “coastal caretakers of the environment, who must protect wild life and the unique estuary nursery at Tigertail Beach.”
“Students learned about the diversity of species made possible by healthy water and how that water affects sea life and ultimately our quality of life. They also gained an understanding of the role of watersheds and the importance of respecting the total environment over personal gain,” she said.
“We want to help make them advocates for a pollution free habitat in which sea creatures and mangroves can thrive to ensure the future integrity of our oceans and our world.”
In preparation for the trip, Farhat said students researched and studied watersheds, the food chain, sea creatures and the elements that constitute a healthy estuary.
Through activities like seining, sieving and dip-netting, students had the opportunity to collect scientific information using the scientific method.
Teacher Matt Lyons said the May 6 trip served as an opportunity for students to learn about the unique ecosystem at Tigertail Beach and the impact of environmental factors like salinity, temperature, pH balance and ideal dissolved oxygen.
“Students practiced collecting temperature and pH data using Vernier probes, used hydrometers to measure the water’s salinity and have a basic understanding of how to use nets to collect estuary life,” he said.
“Besides collecting and analyzing data, students will be able to publish their results to a shared website and compare changes in the data of the environmental factors with that collected from a previous field trip made by other TBE classes.”
A comparison of those findings with that of other district students will be sent to the conservancy in an effort to help monitor local bodies of water.
“I want students to walk away impressed by the diversity of the flora and fauna. Our goal is to have them understand the importance of Tigertail Beach, and see that it impacts more than the animals and other native wildlife, and that it requires diligent care,” he said.
Several local organizations work together to ensure that educational trips to Tigertail Beach become unique learning opportunities for students.
The Friends of Tigertail Beach (FOT) President, Debbie Roddy has been most supportive of TBE’s trips by recruiting volunteers like Murray Barnhart and Carole Talkowski, who were on hand to help students identify the various wild and water life and work with parent volunteers.
“Nobody knows Tigertail beach like the FOT. We are willing to work with any school’s program to further education,” said Roddy.
The organization works toward “preserving and protecting the natural systems of Tigertail Beach” and hosts educational programs like bird walks, shell talks and events such as “Discover Tigertail.”
The group has constructed an osprey platform, established a butterfly garden and erected plant identification signs throughout the park.
The FOT is also associated with the Conservancy, which provides training to volunteers and teachers in the activities that will provide the most meaningful educational experiences.
In addition, volunteers from Friends of the Estuary provided information on nesting birds, sea life and mangrove identification, according to Paul Westberry, Director of the board of Friends of Rookery Bay, who also helped students identify water life discovered on the shoreline and shallows.
“Students received valuable hands on lessons in the eco system of the shoal. They have increased their appreciation of the complexity and interdependence of life. A previously unknown world has been revealed to them and they vividly expressed their excitement,” said Westberry.
He said that the TBE fourth grade team trained parent volunteers who attended one of two instructional groups – seining and sieving and ‘Quest Team.’
The latter team remained at school and operated handheld computers that took information about the vital statistics of the estuary by testing water temperature, pH, salinity and dissolved oxygen.
“The seining and sieving group hit the open estuary and unloaded the equipment used on the trip. They had an opportunity to travel across the estuary to the ocean to compare and contrast estuary life to ocean life,” said Westberry.
“The rewards for students are imbedded in their new enthusiasm for their environment. They became aware of the variety of marine life and began to move their scope of awareness from the macro to the micro.”
The former Dean of Students at Manatee Elementary School now monitors turtle nests, conducts trawling research, shark research and hosts kayak tours. Westberry also captains a trawl boat.
“My involvement in Rookery Bay keeps me connected to learning about the marine environment and all the benefits associated with people who are passionate about their discipline and the mission of Rookery Bay.