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Teachers take to wild for lesson from nature

County educators don hiking gear to learn firsthand what they will teach students about the environment.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002


WEEKI WACHEE -- It seems that before you take students into the wilderness to teach them about the environment, there are some important tips to remember.

Always remember the insect repellent.

Make sure you know which animals are capable of attacking your students.

And before you tell the kids to eat something, make sure it is not poisonous.

For about 40 Hernando County teachers, those are just some of the most obvious pearls of wisdom to be discovered this summer during training aimed at helping them teach students about the environment.

As environmental education goes, Hernando County is about to begin a new day.

Plans are in the works to build a new environmental education center on the banks of the Weeki Wachee River that will serve as a jumping-off point for any number of outdoor learning excursions.

In anticipation of the center's opening late next spring, the teachers are devoting a week of their summer to learn the ins and outs of the ecosystem in and around the Weeki Wachee River.

The first group of intrepid educators -- about 18 teachers from seven county schools -- fought through hordes of hungry mosquitoes last week. They kayaked down the river and the salt marsh along the coast and hiked through the scrub forest in its various stages of development.

Another group of about 20 teachers will begin a similar week of discovery later this month under the leadership of Mark Weaver, a marine biology teacher at Central High School.

Weaver said the environmental center would help teachers bring more realism to science. "We talk about the Nature Coast, and it's important for the kids to know how to protect it," Weaver said.

The environmental center, expected to cost approximately $750,000, is being planned for an area along the river about a half-mile west of the intersection of U.S. 19 and State Road 50.

It is being paid for by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The school district will provide a teacher. And a cooperative effort, involving private organizations, will equip it with supplies ranging from microscopes to kayaks.

Initially, fourth-graders will get the most use out of the center. But students of other ages will likely get a shot at experiencing it through half-day field trips, Weaver said.

For Doris Kelly, a West Hernando Middle School teacher who grew up in Florida, the crash course last week taught her things about plants, animals and trees that she never knew. And she's eager to share them with her students.

"I will feel more confident," Kelly said. "I know the names of the plants. It will reduce that fear factor."

Kelly and other teachers who came down the river and trekked across the landscape during the past week said they expected that the outdoor classroom -- always nearby but never quite in their grasp -- would do wonders for their students.

"It will help us reach kids that we might not otherwise," Kelly said.

"Sometimes the classroom can be very threatening to them, and we get out here and they thrive. And then they go back to the classroom and they thrive there, too."

Kelly was but one of several teachers in the group from West Hernando Middle, where enthusiasm for adventure is abundant.

Four elementary schools -- J.D. Floyd, Pine Grove, Suncoast and Deltona -- were also represented, as were Parrott Middle and Hernando High.

The leaders of the expedition were two educators from, of all places, Tampa.

Mike Mullins, 54, and Karen Johnson, 37, are past and present leaders of Hillsborough County's environmental education program, which is based on the Hillsborough River just north of the University of South Florida campus.

Along the trail, they lectured about aquatic ecology and xeric plants.

They challenged the teachers to identify red basil, cat briar and wild rosemary. And they talked about how the land restores itself after fires blaze through.

More than that, they tried to show teachers how to convey those lessons to students. A good way, as they showed by example, is to let students use field manuals to identify plants and birds.

After all, teaching kids how to gain knowledge themselves is what education is all about.

Mullins said teachers needed to know what they want to accomplish outdoors, how to prepare students for the experience and how to respect the privilege of an outdoor field trip.

That last point is vital, Mullins said, because teachers who let accidents happen outdoors can endanger their careers and jeopardize an entire environmental education program.

Above all, teachers need to have fun so their students can enjoy the learning experience.

In the end, Mullins said, environmental education will teach the next generation of residents and leaders what they need to know in order to preserve the natural wonders around them.

"It gives the kids a sense of place," Mullins said.

"They need to know where they live and how their environment operates."

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

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