“I’m totally putting this on Instagram,” one third-grader said as he took out his smartphone to take a picture of the large aquatic mammal swimming along Blue Spring in Orange City, Fla.
“Wow! That one is so big!” screamed another student while tapping his teacher to get her attention.
Students’ faces were in awe as they witnessed the animal that they had been learning about for weeks, in its natural habitat.
In early February, about 100 third-graders from Hartley Elementary School made the two-hour trek from St. Johns County to Blue Spring State Park to observe manatees in the wild.
The field trip was part of an 18-lesson curriculum, developed by Florida Sea Grant Agent Maia McGuire and Ruth Francis-Floyd, a professor at UF College of Veterinary Medicine, aimed at integrating science into everyday reading and math lessons in Florida schools. Each lesson follows Sunshine State Standards and incorporates Common Core standards where appropriate.
“We were both interested in making it easier for teachers to teach science in schools,” said McGuire, who works with UF/IFAS Extension in St. Johns and Flagler counties. “We found that they were challenged by having to do reading and math and they didn’t have time to teach science. So we decided, what would be a better way to teach science than to use a really cool animal like the manatee?”
McGuire said the curriculum includes lessons on the biology of manatees, how humans affect the environment, manatee migration patterns and the meaning of adaptation. The field trip serves as a way for the students to put their research skills to the test by acting as amateur scientists in the field.
Equipped with data sheets, the young scientists used binoculars to identify manatees by counting the scars visible on each animal’s back and then carefully recording the observation.
“They’ve learned that the scars often result from human interaction, like boat collisions. But, they’ve also learned that’s how we identify individual manatees,” McGuire said.
The students also used their data sheets to record the other wildlife they observed, including fish and birds. Volunteers from the University of Florida served as team leaders, helping the students with identification and teaching them fun facts.
Jason Ferrante, a graduate student in the college of veterinary medicine at UF, said he was more than willing to volunteer.
“One of the most important things this country needs is scientists willing to convey science to young people,” Ferrante said. “My favorite part of teaching is when kids learn a little bit about a topic and are excited about answering questions. It gives you an opportunity to teach them more.”
Bryan Dawson, a graduate student who traveled from UF’s Indian River Research and Education center to assist, said his favorite part of the field trip was getting schooled by the students.
“It was the best when the students were pointing at the fish and telling me what type of fish they were, more so than the manatees,” Dawson said.
During the field trip, any time a volunteer asked a question such as, “What is the temperature of the spring?” or “How deep is the water?” a group of students always had their hands raised eagerly to answer.
McGuire said the curriculum has been very successful and has met her expectations.
“We want them to have fun, but be scientists at the same time and see that, actually, science can be fun.”
A free download of the full curriculum can be found at this link: http://stjohns.ifas.ufl.edu/sea/3rd_grade_curriculum.html
For teachers who cannot schedule the field trip, the manatees can be viewed in the winter months through live cams at this link: http://www.savethemanatee.org/savethemanateecam.html