In Carroll County, a 300-acre lake, filled with fish and surrounded by wildlife, is a living classroom, providing lessons more memorable than any gleaned from a microscope or textbook.
For the bio-communities science unit, teachers are taking their classes to Piney Run Lake near Eldersburg, an ideal setting for studying the delicate web of life, the interdependence of animals and the role humans play.
The "lake study," designed for fourth-grade pupils, has children combing the shores for tiny specimens and riding a pontoon boat to search for trout and beaver.
Class starts at Piney Run Park Nature Center with a food web game, with children adopting the identity of animals and plants. They weave gold-colored yarn -- the color of sunlight -- into an intricate food chain that starts with tiny plants and insects and ends with herons, otters and widemouth bass.
"We look like a giant spider web," said Samantha Kretschmer, who participated in the study Tuesday with her classmates from Winfield Elementary School.
"You are all connected by strands of sunlight," said Deanna Hofmann, a park naturalist who was leading the class.
The children giggled as classmates read descriptions of bugs that "can slurp fish like soup." One child wondered, "Can they do that to humans?"
But when Hofmann asked what would happen if too much lawn fertilizer fell into the lake, the game took a serious turn.
"Drop your string, if you are a bluegill or a bass," she said. "What is happening to our food?"
"It is dying," said the children.
"The idea is to show how different animals depend on each other and how people fit into the picture," said Hofmann, who leads about 60 such programs each year. "I hope they come away with the idea of how many creatures depend on fresh water. This is an experience they could not do in a classroom."
Dipping nets of knowledge
Next the children explore the lake shore with dip nets, buckets and colanders, trying to find the animals at the bottom of the chain.
Tara Moxley, the first to hit the shore, rolled her overalls above her knees, grabbed a net and shouted, "I am going in."
She waded into the shallow water, undeterred by the soaking she gave her tennis shoes. A scientist cannot let squishy shoes get in the way, she said.
"They are all getting wet, but it doesn't matter," said Tracey Rynkowski, mother and chaperon. "What a neat way to learn this is."
'I have something crawling'
Tara and three Winfield classmates filled a basin with water and added their finds: snails, beetles and water bugs -- all scooped from the lake bottom.
"I have something crawling around in my net," said Raechel Murray. "Oops, I lost him."
Raechel eventually netted several dragonfly larvae, which she is certain will mature during the winter. A large flock of Canada geese honked as it flew above the lake, briefly distracting the group.
"They are trying to form a V," said Alex Kennedy. When she looked down at her net, she discovered a tiny bluegill. "I've got a fish."
Early education is a key
Greg Becker, vice chairman of the Sierra Club, which promotes environmental awareness, said lessons in ecology should begin at an early age.
"You can't learn care and respect for God's creation too early," Becker said. "Carroll County is really a leader in environmental education with this program."
Before the children donned life jackets and boarded the pontoon, they carefully poured the water from the basins back into the lake. Motoring across the water, they saw a beaver lodge, a swarm of whirligig beetles and a fish in the weeds.
"He was hiding and waiting to eat a water bug and he got it," said Samantha.
They identified a catfish by its whiskers. Cotie Byrns told his classmates catfish made great eating and Sammi Garst said they were the easiest fish to catch.
From lake to microscope
The class collected a water sample from the deepest area of the lake and took it back to school. They viewed it under the microscope yesterday. The samples showed good water quality and were filled with interesting specimens, said JoAnne Stevens, their teacher.
"We can always get pond water, but it is not the same as actually being at the lake and seeing," Stevens said. "This lake study introduces children to food webs and shows how the pond is an interdependent community."