By JOEL POILEY
THONOTOSASSA -- Perhaps it was the thrill of holding a baby gator as it wiggled to get free. Or it could have been scrounging the shoreline for animal samples.
Those types of outdoor learning adventures have beckoned 12-year-old Matt Dickson and thousands of other budding environmentalists to Nature's Classroom.
Quietly tucked away on 365 tree-lined acres near the Hillsborough River, Nature's Classroom has been a staple of the Hillsborough County school system for 33 years. Through its three-day field trips for sixth-graders during the school year and its summer camps, the experience has given more than 300,000 students an appreciation of the environment, as well as an understanding of their responsibility to maintain it.
"We're trying to get the kids out into the ecosystem and develop an understanding of it because they're the taxpayers, they're the council people of tomorrow," said Bill Munsey, an original teaching member of the staff.
"This helps them make more informed decisions and understand a little better how important it is to take care of what we have so future generations still have it and we don't destroy all the balance that nature has."
The program during the school year is more structured and run in concert with a science unit classroom study. About 15,000 students each year learn environmental concepts that are reinforced with hands-on activities during the field trip. Munsey said the interaction with nature often changes a child's perception of the outdoors.
"We see tremendous apprehension because of movies such as Lake Placid, Anaconda or one of those," said Munsey, 61. "At the end of three days they're very laid back, relaxed, willing to try things. We don't succeed with every kid, but we have a good percentage who leave here wanting to come back.
"One of the things I see that's a tremendous advantage when the classroom teachers come out here with their kids is, the kid sees their teacher in a different light and they see their kids in a different light. They may see things in some of these kids that they weren't picking up in the classroom that can be really instrumental when they get back to the classroom in helping them work with a kid."
Jonathan Diaz-Garcia of Lutz had never heard of Nature's Classroom until his seventh-grade class at St. Lawrence Catholic School made the pilgrimage last school year. Diaz-Garcia, who is thinking of becoming a veterinarian, was in his element learning about snakes, rabbits and opossums during last week's Florida Wilderness Adventure Camp. He also attended the Water Adventure Camp, funded by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Summer programs involve considerable ecological study, with boating, hiking to explore plants, and viewing an animal compound containing some of Florida's larger animals. In the science room, students hold many of the smaller animals and learn about the different vertebrate groups.
A few wilderness legends are thrown in for fun and to keep students on their toes during hikes.
She visited as a kid
The camps try to show that environmental activities and outdoor recreational skills go hand in hand, according to Munsey and lead teacher Karen Johnson.
Johnson, 37, started as a math counselor at Nature's Classroom, which today has four full-time employees. She became its assistant principal four years ago and trains all the teachers, works on the curriculum and handles scheduling.
It's a dream come true for Johnson, who first visited Nature's Classroom as a sixth-grader.
"I remember walking down one of the trails with Mr. (Mario) Borenell, who still teaches here," said Johnson, who has been in the Hillsborough school system for 14 years. "I distinctly remember asking him what it takes to work in a place like this. I didn't want to be a teacher. But I knew I wanted to be involved with animals; that was my first love."
That dream almost ended in 1995, when the School Board voted to close Nature's Classroom because of district budget cuts. The site was kept open only for one-day field trips the rest of that year.
The Hillsborough Education Foundation stepped in to support the program. In the 1996-97 school year, the Hillsborough River watershed study program was opened through funding from Swiftmud, the education foundation and the School Board.
"When it almost closed, the public really backed us up," Johnson said.
"The school district knows that we are a diamond, but we still have to get creative finding funding."
Busch Gardens in the rough
The camp is undergoing extensive renovations with the help of grants and donations. Within five to seven years, Munsey said, the camp will have "a Busch Gardens look in a rustic sort of way." A new boardwalk is under way, and next year a new welcoming and administration center is planned.
Eleven-year-old animal lover Cori Benitez will probably be there, making the trek from Dade City.
"I liked learning how to build the shelter and survive in the woods," said Benitez, a sixth-grader this fall at Pasco Middle School who has three dogs and a cat and is getting two turtles.
It's important to pass on knowledge of Florida's environment, Munsey said.
"Florida's a unique system. We're a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides," he said. "Our weather is different than any other place in the United States, and people that come here don't quite understand what Florida is all about.
"But now their children, we hope, can go home and share a lot of what we do. They're like our ambassadors to the public."
About Nature's Classroom
The program: The outdoor education project has focused on Florida's ecosystem since 1969. During the school year, every sixth-grader in Hillsborough County public schools, and many in private schools, attends a three-day class in conjunction with a science unit.
Summer camps offered through June:
Swiftmud Water Adventure Camp -- free
Florida Wilderness Adventure Camp -- $80
Outward Bound -- $80
Each camp runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. The water adventure and wilderness camps are geared to middle school students. Outward Bound is for students entering fourth and fifth grade.
Location: 13100 Verges Road.
Phone: For camp information and donations, call 987-6969.
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