During a recent break from the classroom, children from Edmondson Heights Elementary dredged up tadpoles and silversides, captured insects and measured tree trunks.
But this was no ordinary field trip. Their visit to Miami Beach Park and Marshy Point Nature Center was part of Ecotrekkers, a Baltimore County schools' outdoor science program that ensures that no fifth-grader is left inside.
This is the second year that about 8,000 fifth-graders from every Baltimore County elementary school have explored wetlands and forests, meadows and the shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
The school system's outdoor science program has always offered field experiences, but they depended on teacher initiative in the past, said senior teacher-naturalist and team leader Patricia Ghingher. Groups came, but often from the same schools.
"The only students that got to come out were the ones where the teacher wanted to do that," she said.
School system officials changed the dynamics in 2004 by requiring every fifth-grade class to complete the 10-day Ecotrekkers unit at some point during the year. They're also working on outdoor science programs for other grades as well.
Preparations begin in the classroom, where children learn how energy travels through food chains. Then, during the field experience, they measure conditions of each ecosystem and look for signs of producers, consumers and decomposers. When they return to the classroom, they analyze their data.
"They're becoming scientists and they're investigating their local environment," Ghingher said. "It's taking what they learn in the classroom and applying it to a real-life situation."
Four teacher-naturalists lead tours of the ecosystems from September to June, rain or shine. To support the program, the school system also assigned two buses to the program. Even children with physical disabilities can participate, with the help of wheelchair dune buggies equipped with giant tires that can travel on sand.
Teacher-naturalist Tom Melito said it's an opportunity to introduce these children to their surroundings. For a few, the Ecotrekkers trip is their first chance to visit a beach or the Chesapeake Bay. "They don't need to turn on the Discovery Channel to see some wildlife," he said.
If one of the goals is to have children become stewards of the environment, they must first understand it, Ghingher said. "To understand it, you need to be in it."
But it's more than a day trip. "When they get off the bus, they're just ready to go," Ghingher said. "They're out there to be scientists."
Kids equipped with clipboards and pencils measure air and water temperature as well as the salinity of the water in each environment. Teachers record the data on the outdoor science program's Web site, cataloging seasonal changes over time.
The children at Edmondson Heights started their unit by playing "competitive musical chairs" in their science classes to demonstrate how living things vie for resources such as food, water and space in their environment. The last three found that one had a bottle of water taped to the bottom of the chair; another had a breakfast cookie. One lucky child had a cookie and water.
"You didn't know it, but you were also competing for what was underneath your chair," teacher Carol Ann Phillips told the kids.
Out at Miami Beach Park, teacher-naturalist Carol Lancaster began the lesson by showing them a stuffed muskrat - likely the only version of the shy animal they would see on the trip, although muskrat huts were part of the tour. Lancaster also pointed out baby-turtle tracks in the sand and a red-winged blackbird perched on reeds as they walked on a boardwalk through the wetlands area.
When the boardwalk crossed over a wet area, Lancaster identified red pollen dusting the surface and pointed out frogs and snakes. "The one in the water is right there!" fifth-grader Dorian Anderson told a classmate, pointing to a brown snake coiled in the water. "It's like making a little heart."
The children got nets to dredge the bottom of a marshy area. Each was instructed to take a good whiff of the gases emitted by bacteria decomposing matter before rooting around with a plastic spoon for organisms to examine.
Briana Dean, 10, dropped her spoon after collecting several wiggling tadpoles. "She hit tadpole heaven," Lancaster said.
At the shore area, Melito, the teacher-naturalist, showed them several types of aquatic vegetation. The children then dragged long nets across the surface of the ocean floor and spread them out on the shore.
"Here's some baby silversides," Melito said, warning the children to wet their hands before picking up the fish to prevent the spread of bacteria to the animals.
"I probably got some in my shoes," said Brandon Gough, 10, as he wiggled. Volunteer John Mintiens pulled a small, tentacle-free jellyfish off another net so children could touch it.
After lunch, the children went to Marshy Point Nature Center and compared two forests. One was older, with fewer trees and more space; the younger woodland had more trees and plants because more light made it to the forest floor.
The children and chaperones measured and counted trees in both forests and examined remnants of animals and plants. Jeremy Robinson, 11, held up a display box that held a brownish clump. "It smells like dead animals," he said. "There's bones inside of it."
Later, outdoor science resource teacher Christie Davis explained to the class that it was a large owl pellet - the undigested fur, bones and other remains of an owl's lunch.
The group then took a short walk to a clearing.
"Meadows are transition places," explained teacher-naturalist Dawn Dawson, pointing out the surrounding trees. She demonstrated in slow motion the proper technique for swinging sweep nets through the tall grasses in an unmowed area. The children captured insects and spiders and brought them back to Dawson, who collected them in small clear boxes.
Everyone stood in a circle and passed around the specimens that had been found.
Finally, after a final squirt from a giant bottle of hand sanitizer, the children boarded the school bus back to Edmondson Heights.
Their activities will continue back in the classroom. They will graph the data they've collected and take a test on the material they've covered. They will also create "eco-chambers" - dioramas of a working ecosystem - in 2-liter soda bottles.
"This way we have two ways they can show us what they've learned," Ghingher said.