Florida fifth graders discover Wetland Wonders at the Museum of Science & Industry. Grants in Action

As 30 fifth graders holding long-handled nets jostle for dipping position at the edge of a shrinking pond, Karen Pate wonders what to do. Her wetland isn't very wet any more.

The director of an HHMI-supported "Wetland Wonders" program at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, Fla., Pate leads 1,000 fifth grade youngsters each school year on a two-hour trek through the 25-acre "Back Woods" adjacent to the museum. This year, with rainfall nearly 75 inches below normal, the 11 acres that usually are under water have dried to a trickle and a small pool.

Karen Pate, Wetland Wonders program director, shows Amir Pishdad how to use field microscope to study wetland organisms.

But dry wetland is an unpleasant fact of life for these Florida children, one they need to understand so that they can act in their environment's best interests, now and when they grow up. So Pate and her energetic young staff—most of them students at nearby University of South Florida—talk with the children about all the jobs the wetlands normally do for them and what happens when a task like filtering and cleaning water goes undone.

"We want them to know what makes Florida so special and how they can help keep it that way," says Pate.

Back in MOSI's outdoor classroom, the youngsters are using field microscopes, magnifying glasses and field guides to examine the wetlands wildlife that they have scooped from the pond and the woods around it. "If I touch it, will it give me warts?" asks Jason Velasco, peering at a Cuban tree frog. "No warts," MOSI staffer Joe Swingle assures him, "but amphibians do carry Salmonella on their skin, so be sure to wash your hands before you eat."

A hike through five different habitats that border the wetlands yields a wealth of discoveries, among them blackberries, gopher tortoise holes and elegant zebra long-wing butterflies—Florida's state butterfly. "The kids are having so much fun, they don't even realize how much they're learning," Pate remarks.

After lunch, the children try their hands at microbiology, botany, chemistry and engineering experiments in the museum's BioWorks Butterfly Garden, an outdoor teaching lab sponsored by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Bank of America. BioWorks is a living machine, an engineered ecosystem that uses animals, plants and microbes to cleanse the museum's waste water for re-use. Built as a model for reclamation of waste water, it houses the lab and a garden filled with Florida's native butterflies.

The children's Wetland Wonders day winds up in MOSI's Water Cycles Exhibit, where they explore a model aquifer cave and learn still more about the liquid resource upon which all life depends. "How much of the water in the world is available for drinking?" asks Pate. "One percent," the youngsters chorus. (Another two percent is frozen and 97 percent is salt.) "Is there any new water in the world?" Pate continues. As these fifth graders and hundreds of others in Tampa now know, the answer is no.

Back in their schools and homes, the children collect data on water use. With water-saver shower heads and faucet attachments, games and pamphlets, toys and pencils imprinted with water conservation reminders—provided by the City of Tampa Water Department and the Southwest Florida Water Management District—they are equipped to act on what they've learned.

"We're creating citizen-scientists," says Pate. "They're discovering that even fifth graders can make a difference, and they are going to be water-aware for the rest of their lives."

For More Information

Jim Keeley 301.215.8858