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Ecological education
Squid and salt marshes help South Hall students learn about the world around them
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Leigh Brown's fourth-grade class works on projects at Spout Springs Elementary School. The gifted-education class recently took a field trip to St. Simons Island. - photo by Robin Michener Nathan

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Spout Springs Elementary School fourth-graders Jaxon Vadner, Emily Brown and Johana Earnhart talk about their trip to Driftwood Education Center, a nonprofit environmental education group at St. Simons Island.

This was no ordinary trip to the beach.

A group of Spout Springs Elementary School gifted-education students explored a salt marsh, touched alligators and dissected a squid as part of environmental education classes last month at Driftwood Education Center on St. Simons Island.

"It was a wonderful learning experience and the students had a blast," said Leigh Brown, who teaches the school's gifted class.

The school sent 28 fourth- and fifth-graders on the trip, along with several other faculty members, including principal Steven McDaniel, as chaperones.

Brown approached McDaniel and assistant principal Arlene Thomas earlier in the year about taking an educational trip. McDaniel recommended Driftwood, having taken a group there the past five years from his previous school, Jasper Middle School.

"I looked it up and ... made sure that they met (all curriculum standards)," she said.

Driftwood Education Center is a nonprofit environmental education group that leases space from Epworth by the Sea, a Christian conference and retreat center, Brown said.

"They hire students and a lot of them have their advanced degrees," she added. "They come down and teach ... the various courses."

The center's mission "is to cultivate a personal responsibility and awareness of for our aquatic ecosystems," according to its Web site. The program aims to develop both social and life skills, along with blending four main themes to help promote critical thinking: intertidal zones, freshwater habitat, terrestrial ecosystems and stewardship.

The Web site says Driftwood hopes "our participants will become responsible members of their community and continue to have a lasting desire to care for and preserve their aquatic resources."

Spout Springs students participated in programs that had them exploring plant and animal species; handling such animals as crabs, sea anemones, shrimp and mollusks; and venturing through woods to "learn how to identify animals through close observation of the signs they leave (behind)."

"Many different forms of scientific investigation were used by the students," Brown said.

"Students observed marine species' appearances, collected specimens for analysis and conducted experiments," she said. "(They) also identified surface features of the Earth caused by constructive and destructive processes."

The academics was intense, but it wasn't as if Driftwood was the coastal version of Spout Springs.

Students got to hang out in picture-postcard settings and the weather was perfect, Brown said.

They slept in cabins, ate squid - which got mixed reviews from the students - and told stories and sang songs around a beach campfire.

"It was probably the best field trip I've ever been on," Brown said. "It was very well run. It was very well organized. The kids were fantastic. No one got hurt. ... It was just a great experience."

Fourth-grader Jaxon Vadner, 9, said he enjoyed the beach the most.

"When we were racing, we found a big jellyfish," he said.

Emily Brown, 9, also in the fourth grade, liked the squid dissection.

"One of (the) tentacles fell off when we were trying to get out the esophagus," she said.

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