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Students Discover Florida Over Spring Break
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Normal 0 0 1 24 141 oakdale leader 1 1 173 11.1287 0 0 0 OJHS seventh graders kayak through the Florida Everglades during a Spring Break educational tour with science teacher Fred Yerzy and world history teacher Rachel Torres. - photo by Photo Contributed

Spring Break in Florida generally conjures up images of beach parties and swarms of teens and college students who aren't there to learn about the delicate ecosystem of the Everglades. But for some students from Oakdale Junior High School, spending their recent Spring Break in Florida on an educational tour gave them a new appreciation for learning and new perspectives on science and history.

Science teacher Fred Yerzy and world history teacher Rachel Torres teamed up to take their seventh grade students on a “Discover Florida” trip that included jaunts to the Everglades, Disney World, the Turtle Hospital, Kennedy Space Center, and of course, the ocean.

This trip was unique for the educational tour company, WorldStrides, in that it had never had a combined science and history tour for students to Florida. WorldStrides asked Yerzy to do a newsletter so that they could inform other educators about the possibilities.

He said that the science and history complement each other and balance the trip with a “little bit of this — science — and a little bit of that — history” without overwhelming anyone with just science only.

He said that educational trips get students excited about learning, especially when they’ve grown bored or lack appreciation for the natural beauty around them.

He said that once they “step out of the four walls of the classroom and get (their) hands dirty…” things change. It’s all in 3-D, not just in a textbook.

“The whole trip was really enjoyable,” said student Martin Arellano, adding that his favorite part of it was the Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral) and learning about what astronauts do and how they train, but he talked most about the Everglades.

“The main unusual part (of the trip) was probably the Everglades. It (originally) was such a great, giant area and how it’s condensed into such a small area over the years,” he said. “It was amazing. There was so much (life). The bugs were annoying. There were so many alligators, we saw a couple of pythons…different fish and different birds.”

Arellano reported that they took airboats to an area of the '’glades they couldn’t reach by walking, and wouldn’t want to try swimming. He also recalled that they went out on a night hike with their flashlights and saw numerous alligators, and did some stargazing as well.

Yerzy added that while stargazing, they saw the constellation known as the Southern Cross, which is only visible in Florida and Hawaii because of the latitude.

“Being out in the Everglades changed my perspective on what it was,” Arellano said. “I thought it was just grass. Being out there, seeing all the life, it changed completely what I thought it was.”

He said that the trip has made him “way more interested” in science and has given him more perspective on plant life.

Yerzy said the Everglades are a delicate ecosystem and that the alligators are instrumental in keeping it in check. He said the Everglades are special, like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or Hawaii. He added that the trip will create lifetime memories for the students.

“I liked the fact that it was warm and the ocean was warm,” said student Quinn Gagos. “I got to swim with dolphins – that was my favorite part of the whole trip… I really thought you couldn’t just walk into the ocean, where you just wade, and find all kinds of sea life and fish.”

“(The trip) shows how colorful the U.S. is and opens their eyes to the beauty of the planet,” Yerzy said.

“It showed me there’s a lot more outside California and that one state can have so much,” Gagos agreed. “It really does matter — the climate — and how you take care of your environment.”

Student Shaelyn Sexton reported that swimming with the dolphins and “dip netting” were her favorite parts of the trip. She explained that dip netting consists of putting a net into the ocean water and swirling it on the ocean floor. There is an abundance of sea life in the sand.

“Some people found seahorses, shrimp, worms, crabs, jellyfish,” Sexton recalled. “It was really interesting… Then we put them in a box to see how they interacted with each other and learned more about them.”

Yerzy added that they saw several Portuguese Man-o-War up close. He said he’d always thought they were really large jellyfish, but found out that the jelly top, or bladder, is not very big but their tentacles can get up to 60 feet long. He described them as looking like a small water balloon on top that was a transparent cobalt blue. Their tentacles were colorful in shades of pink, purple, blue, maroon, and they coil and retract up and down.

Other wildlife they observed were a barracuda, fan coral, brain coral, the usual tropical fish, sponges, encrusting sponges, sharks, egrets, great herons. Plus, there were also “alligators galore” and fireflies.

“You name it, it was there,” Yerzy said.

Sexton reported that when they went snorkeling they saw a large amount of dead coral and only some that was alive.

“You realize we’re doing things that harm the ocean and the creatures that live in it,” she said.

She noted that the dead coral was disintegrated in some areas and there was virtually no sea life around it. The sea life congregated where the coral was alive. She said that they weren’t allowed to touch the coral because it could kill it.

“I think differently about how we should act in the ocean,” Sexton said upon returning from the trip. She added that some people don’t realize that what they do in the ocean is harmful.

“I think it’s a great experience and if you have the chance (to visit) you should go for it because it’s worth it, well worth it,” Arellano said.

Teacher Rachel Torres said that she and Yerzy are planning a Florida reunion evening meeting in mid- to late May where they’ll show a DVD movie/slide show they created from photos from the trip.