Wetland is outdoor classroom for Alabama school system

December 12, 2013

By DEANGELO MCDANIEL | 
The Decatur Daily

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — Almost every time Molly Ferrell asked a question, Nia Brown raised her hand. She didn't have all the right answers, but that wasn't the point.

Brown was one of 21 Woodmeade Elementary fourth-graders who enjoyed hands-on experience at the Decatur City Schools' Wetlands Edge Environmental Center on Wednesday.

The center has 40 live animal exhibits and is a sanctuary "where kids can experience the joy and excitement of holding animals they have talked about in the classroom," said Ferrell, a teacher at the environmental center.

Teacher Christy Brown, whose students are doing animal studies this semester, said the center is one of Decatur's best educational tools.

"We can have certain animals in our classroom, but there is so much more here for them to see," she said.

Wetlands Edge, a partnership between Decatur schools and BP, is a 500-acre certified wildlife habitat with more than 100 animal species.

The center, however, is the heart of the wetlands, because it has a 1,650-gallon saltwater tank and a 780-gallon freshwater ecosystem that allows students to see wildlife including a shark, stingray, alligator and flounder.

"We have native and exotic animals," Ferrell said.

Unlike a zoo, Ferrell features what she called an "in the field" class.

Students asked about a stingray in the saltwater tank. She explained why its top is blue and its bottom is white. Both are designed for camouflage.

"I didn't know that," student Olivia Campbell said.

Ferrell explained that some sea animals, such as the bamboo cat sharks, are most active at night.

"What do you call animals that do most things at night?" Ferrell asked.

Brown was first to raise a hand.

"Nocturnal," she said.

Ferrell later talked about sharks laying eggs. About half of the students didn't know sharks lay eggs.

"Do any of you see shark eggs?" Ferrell asked as students turned their attention to the tank.

When it became clear that no student would find them, she pointed to the eggs.

"Why are they attached to a rock?" Ferrell said.

Student Michael Orr quickly raised his hand.

"So when other fish swim by, they won't fly away," Orr answered.

One of the most fascinating animals Ferrell showed was a sea cucumber. She removed it from the tank and students were allowed to touch it.

"How does it survive in the tank?" Orr asked.

Ferrell explained that sea cucumbers spit out their insides when they feel threatened and move their body to a safe place.

"They regrow their guts," she said.

Teacher Christy Brown said the interaction between Ferrell and students is what makes the center a "valuable" learning tool.

"They get exposure here that we can't give them in the classroom," she said.

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, www.decaturdaily.com