By Eric Hagen
When classmates ask what they did on their summer vacation, 17 Anoka-Hennepin students can talk about their trip to the Florida Keys.
A summer trip to Florida is not uncommon, but what will make their stories cool is the access they gained to Florida’s diverse ecosystem.
From June 25 through 29, 17 students who were in a middle school last school year were on the Pigeon Key Island just west of Marathon, Fla.
They went snorkeling to find creatures of the sea to collect and examine. They dissected a dog shark, stingray and a squid. They visited a turtle hospital. Anyone who has visited Sea World has seen the wonderful dolphin shows. They got to hold onto the back of dolphins. They walked the trails of the Everglades at night, listening to the frogs and other wildlife as they swatted away giant mosquitoes and watched out for alligators.
Each day wrapped up with playing games and roasting marshmallows around a bonfire on the beach.
“It’s great for them to have an experience different from what they have around home,” said Renae Lenhardt, a science teaching and learning specialist for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
Lenhardt along with Anoka Middle School for the Arts science teacher John Jacobson and parent Cathy Hajicek supervised the 17 students and participated in the activities.
Lenhardt said this is the second year that Anoka-Hennepin middle school students have gone on a science field trip through the WorldStrides program. The trip was very structured and kids learned a lot from the marine biologists, according to Hajicek. The students were busy from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, so catnaps on the bus between activities was not uncommon.
Last year, 33 students were in the Tampa, Fla., area where they swam with manatees, snorkeled in the Crystal River and kayaked on at Fort DeSota State Park. Next year, Renhardt will organize a trip to Costa Rica where students will walk through the rain forest and learn about this much different ecosystem and the animals that inhabit it. The Arenal Volcano is in the area they will be visiting.
Students and their parents are responsible for the trip costs. Angie Ramsdell, a student who went on both Florida trips, said they did various fund-raisers such as selling chocolate bunnies before Easter and selling candles to help offset the cost.
It was an incredible experience for the students. Matt Hajicek, who will be entering seventh-grade this fall at Jackson Middle School in Champlin, enjoyed snorkeling and finding all sorts of things like a lobster and a sea cucumber.
Ramsdell kissed a sea cucumber and found it to be very bumpy. Sea urchins, fire worms and an upside down jellyfish were some of the other creatures recovered by the students.
They saw the impact humans have on nature. One turtle at the turtle hospital was run over by a boat and can never be released into the wild because air got stuck in its shell after the impact. It cannot swim below the surface without weights on it.
Seagrass provides shelter for various species, protects against coastal erosion and stores carbon. Students learned that seagrass is being threatened by humans over fishing and driving their boats through swallow waters and cutting the seagrass with the propellers.
There were many other memories. Jacobson was making an owl noise to get an owl they heard to respond. It turns out the owl was in the tree above them on the Everglades path they were on.
At one point on their Everglades night walk on the trails, they spotted a mother alligator near her baby. They made sure to keep their distance to not upset the mother.
Stormy weather kept them from kayaking to a coral reef, but they found other educational activities in the meantime.
A memorable experience for Hajicek, Ramsdell and other students was swimming with and being propelled through the water by trained dolphins at Dolphin Cove.
“It was honestly probably the best thing I’ve ever done,” Ramsdell said of being pulled by a dolphin. “It was so cool.”