Class has barely started when 11-year-old Payton Andrews shouts, “There’s an Anhinga,” as she points toward the lagoon where the bird’s snake-like neck rears back before attacking its prey hidden in the water.
Her sixth-grade classmates are briefly mesmerized, before excitedly joining in and shouting out the names of a dozen or birds they’ve also spotted.
Welcome to teacher Karl Leonhardt’s sixth-grade science class at St. Edward’s School – where science is a subject best taught outdoors.
And why not, when students have a lagoon and clear water pond – teeming with birds, amphibians, plants and insects – a literal outdoor science lab, just a few yards from their school building.
“Our students are really fortunate to have a lagoon and pond right outside their school door,” says Leonhardt, who has been teaching science at the school for nine years. “One of the best things is it gets the students out of the classroom, where they spend most of the day sitting behind a computer.
“I’d rather expose them to the outdoors and show them things they might not otherwise notice.”
Students at St. Edward’s start learning about animals and the environment when they are in kindergarten, Leonhardt said. The younger students care for chickens housed in a large chicken coop behind the school.
By the time they reach middle school, they’ve also learned about plants and insects near and around the pond and lagoon.
The lagoon and nearby pond are home to more than 50 different bird species, Leonhardt said. There are also manatees, sharks, dolphins, snakes and literally hundreds of different kinds of insects and plants.
Leonhardt’s class is focusing on birds this year, which includes one to two visits to the lagoon and pond each week. The students, armed with binoculars and a clipboard, take notes of each bird they spot and its environment.
The goal is for the students to be able to identify at least 50 bird specifies by the end of the year, and also learn what the birds eat and where they live, Leonhardt said. During the yearlong project, students also keep track of patterns of the species through the different seasons.
“Most of the birds like to live among the mangroves, and other trees because they can hide behind the leaves,” said Tristan Roberti, 11. “You’ll also find them near water because that’s where they eat insects and fish.”
Tristan is already an experienced and knowledgeable bird-watcher. His passion for the hobby was planted early by his grandfather, who began taking Tristan on bird-watching expeditions almost as soon as the boy learned to walk.
“There’s something peaceful about watching them fly and sing,” Tristan said. “They’re all so different. Snowy egrets are very beautiful.
“The herrings [gulls] are my favorite. They are so calm and gentle. It can shock you when they make noise because they sound so ferocious.”
Payton Andrews prefers learning about fish, no surprise since her father, Carter Andrews, is a professional fisherman.
“I caught my first shark out here two years ago,” said Andrews, motioning to the ocean beyond the lagoon. “It took me 30-40 minutes to reel it in.”
Classmate Finn Secunda is slowly learning to spot the various birds during his class’s weekly outdoor adventures, but he’s more excited talking about previous class periods when students spotted dolphins leaping in the water, or the time a manatee wandered into the lagoon.
But Secunda’s real passion is talking about the environment itself. When he gets to high school, he’ll be able to conduct experiments to learn more about the habits of the birds, mammals, amphibians, plants and insects the students have studied.
“I want to study the water and sediment in the lagoon,” he said. “I already know it’s not very healthy because the boats and pollution are affecting the natural habitat out here.”
Although some students are less excited than others about studying birds, Leonhardt isn’t disappointed at all.
“My goal is to find out what they are passionate about,” he said.
“Because we’re a private school, we’re not subject to the state’s standardized curriculum.
“We have much more leeway to try different things. “I’m happy when students learn they have an interest in things they weren’t even aware of before they were exposed to it.
“The biggest reward is seeing the students happy about what they are doing and happy to be here.”