A place where water, ideas flow

Published May 17, 2007

SPRING HILL - Seventeen second-graders scooted around a people-made river, collecting frogs and leaves on a breezy, sunny day. They weren't on a field trip or picnic - it was their science class at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics.

The scene, which featured teacher Kristen Tormey's class, happens almost daily at Challenger because of a grant-driven eco project called "the Swamp." Tormey's class was studying the concept of living and nonliving objects.

"This is a good place to calm yourself and think about what you want to do, " said second-grader Galvin Walsh, as he sorted things by the living and non-living categories. "You can relax and work, too."

The project began about a year ago when teacher Leonette Ehlenbeck got the go-ahead from principal Sue Stoops to create an outdoor bog project, if she could find the funding to pay for it.

Ehlenbeck secured grants from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Wal-Mart, donations from local businesses and the PTA, and expert assistance from Nature Coast Aquascapes in Floral City.

It took a year to find nearly $20, 000 in funding, but only a month to build the ecosystem, which opened a few weeks ago.

The flow of water begins in a small bog, complete with flora and fauna, and is cleaned in 4 feet of gravel, as it is in the real aquifer. The water goes over a small waterfall into a 6-foot river, which curves around a space shuttle-shaped island.

At the shuttle's nose, the river empties into a garden pond where small fish live.

"It's such a complete system we don't even feed the fish, " said Ehlenbeck. "They feed themselves."

"If you put your hand in and be very quiet, the fish come right up to you, " second-grader Amanda Hudson said, flopping down and demonstrating.

Students can study rock, mulch, fish, algae and insects. At the end of the river, they sometimes find small bits of paper or debris, left by humans, that have worked their way through the whole system. A good lesson in reality, Ehlenbeck said.

There is almost always a class out at the river. Teachers sign up for blocks of time. Some periods are designated for quiet activities like silent reading. Some accommodate more active lessons.

Jarod Brown, another-second grader, said it's his favorite classroom. "I get to move around whenever I want and get a ton of fresh air, " he explained.

Future plans include a turtle pond and a giant chess board built by the chess club. Teachers hope it will be a permanent work in progress.