Fourth-graders Alec Brown and Adam Nesheim lugged a bucket of water up the slope from a Mendenhall Wetlands pond, proud of the two fish they had caught.
The fish were just the slender, silver, slippery fry of pink salmon, but that beat out for excitement the mosquito larvae and beach flies other students had netted Friday afternoon.
The excursion to the wetlands was just part of the activities Juneau's elementary school students participate in for Sea Week, which actually stretches over several weeks in spring.
The statewide event was developed by the Sea Grant College Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In Juneau and elsewhere, scientists and naturalists volunteer to teach students out of doors.
The program costs the Juneau School District very little, said district curriculum coordinator Stephanie Hoag. Some teachers combine it with classroom preparation; others see it as a chance for fun field trips.
Students' activities depend on their grade level. Juneau kindergartners, for example, view aquariums and touch living creatures in tanks at the Auke Bay lab of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Fourth-graders visit the Mendenhall Wetlands. Second-graders learn about mollusks at the Douglas Island Pink and Chum hatchery.
Just as students are divided into schools and classes, scientists separate animals and plants into categories, DIPAC aquarium director and educator Rich Mattson told Mary Bedore's second-graders from Riverbend Elementary on April 25.
The attentive students, curled up on the floor like shrimp, followed Mattson's explanation of bi-valves, even supplying the word "bicycle" to show they understood the meaning of the prefix "bi," derived from Latin.
Mattson told the students that if they're walking along the beach and see water squirting up from the sand, it's the breathing of clams. He explained that some bivalves, such as mussels, live on rocks. Others, such as scallops, live deep in the water.
"Scallops are what I call a clam with an attitude," Mattson said. "They actually clap their shells together. It's not because they're happy to see you. It's trying to get away from you by squirting water and jetting along."
The students were able to follow Mattson's prompts and volunteer that mollusks would need gills if they were to breathe underwater.
Mattson decked out Mikayla Zimmerman as a giggling squid, draping her in a pink cloth to represent a soft body, and attaching white feathers as gills, a foam siphon (a tube to breathe through), foam tentacles on her head, and a foam mantle. Mattson later showed students the same body parts on a small dead squid.
The students weren't shy about picking up live animals from tubs. A girl asked how to tell a boy crab from a girl crab (the shape of the abdomen), and what the barnacles were doing with their tentacles (feeding).
"You got to tell your clam it's a bad boy," one second-grader informed Mattson. "It snapped on my finger and it hurts."
Tiana Escalante, parent of second-grader Taylee, said it was "great" to teach children about marine creatures.
"Let them know it's part of the cycle of life,' Tiana said. "I don't remember having something like this when I was in school. Because a lot of these (creatures), you can't really walk on the beach and see.
"It's important the next generation know if we pollute the water, we're going to lose all these neat creatures."
At the wetlands next to the airport's dike trail on Friday, fourth-graders in Ben Kriegmont's class at Gastineau Elementary watched birds, picked apart chunks of soil, and waded through ponds.
Nina Mollett, a regulation writer for the National Marine Fisheries Service, handled the birding duty at the wetlands Friday.
"I was just trying to show them different kinds of birds and to be quiet and hear what's around them," she said. "Just to convey the beauty of spring, and the birds coming in from who knows where."
"OK, what is dirt?" a sun-hatted Socrates, Susan Hitchcock, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetlands specialist, asked students.
"Yeah, but what's in it," she persisted, drawing out the students with one question after another.
"It's mud that's been dried," a boy offered.
"But what's in mud? What makes it gooey and mucky?"
"Yes, minerals. I love that word," Hitchcock said. "It's not just minerals. It's dead things. Dead plants. Soil is formed when plants interact with the ground."
Soon Hitchcock was pulling apart chunks of peat, offering them to the young noses to smell. She showed how the plants' roots garnered oxygen by taking it from iron in the groundwater.
Walking beside the broad, calm waters of the Mendenhall River in the estuary next to the airport, Hitchcock pointed to the Mendenhall Glacier and traced how boulders end up as fine silt.
Spotting a matting of plants, silt and pollen on the riverbank, Hitchcock grew enthusiastic and said, "This is the salad bar for all the bugs and stuff that grow in the estuary."
The plants feed the bugs, worms and microscopic animals, which feed the shorebirds, which feed people and other big animals, she said.
"There's where we came from, folks," she said, pointing to the plants.
"There?" a boy asked.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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