Five acres of muck, reed and scrub trees behind Hillsmere Elementary School have captured the imaginations of Cathy Zettlemoyer's students in a way she has never before seen.
Ms. Zettlemoyer, who attended environmental workshops last summer, recognized wetland grasses growing near the school's playground in September.
By October, the school had an Eco-Action Club, more than 100 strong, whose members were sacrificing their play period to learn more about the fragile wildlife habitat.
The state Department of Natural Resources only piqued their interest more when it inducted the school and the wetland into its Wild Acres program, which seeks to educate people on how to protect the environment starting in their own back yards.
Students have clamored to help hang new bird feeders or solicit bird seed from the community.
Friday, Ms. Zettlemoyer stood in the door of her classroom turning away students who wanted to spend their recess learning more about Wild Acres. Only students who had completed their feeders -- some carved from plastic milk jugs, others constructed from tin cans -- could participate this day.
"There isn't a day that goes by that one of the kids doesn't ask, 'Are we having Wild Acres today?' " said Ms. Zettlemoyer. "There is so much interest, there just isn't enough time for one teacher."
Fourth-grader Philip Leadroot, 9, hung a bird feeder he had fashioned from a plastic milk jug on a tree limb at the edge of the wetland last week.
Walking back to the classroom, he and his classmates were asked why wetlands are so important. "It provides homes for the animals," Philip said. "It soaks up pollution before it gets into the bay. It's good for the environment."
The Eco-Action Club originally was designed only for fourth- and fifth-grade children. "But kids through the whole school heard about it and started donating bird houses and other stuff," the teacher said.
The rangers at Sandy Point State Park have been so impressed with the students' involvement that they proposed to bring a Junior Rangers program, usually taught during the summers at the park, into the school.
The program would teach students about nature, conservation and careers in natural resources, said Ranger Gary Adelhardt, assistant supervisor at Sandy Point.
Wetlands and wildlife habitat are subjects that adults sometimes have difficulty understanding, said Dana Limpert, an urban wildlife biologist with the DNR.
That's why the state developed the Wild Acres program, which has 2,000 participants statewide.
"A habitat is such a nebulous concept to most people," said Ms. Limpert. "The Wild Acres program is designed to educate people about what they can do in their own back yards.
"Then, hopefully, they'll start making connections to animals and birds outside their back yards."
The students at Hillsmere Elementary are beginning to make those connections.