MARCO ISLAND — The rainstorm was only fitting. The fourth and fifth grade students at Tommie Barfield Elementary were getting a look at the wonders of Florida’s natural environment, focusing on the water which makes life possible here, thanks to a visit from the WaterVentures traveling exhibit. Essentially a museum inside a semi-trailer, the display is spending six weeks in Collier County, visiting every one of the 30 elementary schools. First on the list was Everglades City, and then TBE.
The WaterVentures big rig showed up bright and early to allow each class time with the exhibits. The visit from Mother Nature, helping to emphasize the importance of water to life in Southwest Florida, didn’t come until about one o’clock.
“When you’re teaching about the environment, you can’t apologize for the weather,” said lead educator Sarah Todd, standing outside the exhibit, under a canopy and the downpour. “I’m fine with some rain.”
Inside the trailer, students wandered through a water wonderland, with everything around them designed to show the importance of water to our ecosystem and its inhabitants. Dioramas showed cypress swamps, complete with fish among the cypress knees, wading birds and a gape-jawed alligator. Pulling open a drawer under the display brought the kids a close encounter with skulls, including gator, panther and pelican. Overhead, a realistically rendered sky showed light filtering through trees, as though peering up from underwater.
Interactive displays highlighted the importance of conservation. Students were invited to turn faucets to show the difference in water consumption between, for instance, cleaning your driveway off with a broom versus spraying it with the hose.
The children had been studying water-related content ahead of the WaterVentures visit, said TBE Principal Dr. Jory Westberry, and the students inside the display space demonstrated it. Henry Abrega, a fifth grader in teacher Jennifer Jewett’s class, took it upon himself to explain the perils of saltwater intrusion into drinking water aquifers, very pertinent for Marco Island.
Part of the educational experience focused on rock, and its interaction with groundwater. “This is limestone,” said Todd, to a group of students standing inside what looked like a well or sinkhole surrounded by mostly simulated stone, although it did include embedded chunks of the real thing, some with fossils visible. She told the kids how water is filtered and stored within the ground, and how the limestone was formed during the millions of years Florida spent as part of the seabed.
The educators also talked about water pollution, in terms children could relate to.
“You don’t want to drink water that has animal poop in it,” said Todd. “The good news is, we have a solution for pollution.” Trees, she said, act as natural filters for water, natural bodyguards for our drinking water, as long as there are sufficient quantities for them to do their work.
She told the students how lucky we are to have abundant clean drinking water, contrasting that situation with that of the average African villager, who, said Todd, has to walk 1,500 miles per year just to access potable water.
“We want to raise awareness for environmental sustainability, specific to Florida’s fresh water resources,” said Todd, standing with fellow lead educator Amy Glover during a quick break between classes. “We try to have them realize the impact they can have, and consider themselves stewards” of our natural heritage.
The touring WaterVentures trailer, with its museum-quality exhibits and advanced degree-holding staff members both Todd and Glover have masters in environmental education or marine science is provided free of charge to Collier schools through a grant from Crystal Springs Preserve, which is affiliated with the Zephyr Hills bottled water company. The program is brand new, having just debuted January, and touring the state to promote conservation education.
Todd said that the work the TBE teachers had done prepping the students before the exhibit showed up makes their work easier and allows them to go further with the concepts.
“These kids really get it. The schools here are really rising to the occasion,” she said. More information about the program is available at www.crystalspringspreserve.com.