Using nature as their laboratory, about 150 fourth-graders at Manchester Elementary School had some important questions to answer.
Is the stream polluted or healthy? How do nature's critters use camouflage? And how do I use nature to find my way through the woods?
"We were looking for something to enhance our science curriculum," said Betty Smith, who has been teaching for 20 years. "Right now we are studying the ecosystem and we wanted them to experience it firsthand. Instead of showing them a stream, we took them to a stream where they walked around in the water in their shoes."
The children were participating in a Science Field Day at Charlotte's Quest Nature Center, spearheaded by Smith, a science teacher at Manchester Elementary. The program was added as a supplement to the new science curriculum created by Carroll County science teachers and introduced to the county's fourth-graders this year.
The curriculum includes units on biology, electricity, force, energy and motion, said Smith, who was on the curriculum committee.
The full-day program on the ecosystem included six projects - assessing the health of a stream, making a food chain, finding worms in the grass, bird watching, orienteering and spreading mulch on the trails.
The projects were set up as stations throughout the nature center, situated behind the elementary school, and the pupils were divided into small groups that included a teacher and parent volunteers.
To get to the stream, the students, who wore decorated painter's hats, walked down a winding path covered with pine needles and lined with logs. The first group to hit the stream found out just how cold the water can be at 9 a.m.
"It was freezing cold," said Sara Miracle, 9, of Manchester, who shivered at the thought. "You never know if the sun has been up long enough to warm the water until you walk in it."
Despite the chilly water, Sara's group spent a few minutes searching the stream for such things as snails, crawfish, sow bugs and aquatic worms.
Then they went out in a field next to the stream and told Smith which bugs and insects they had found. Based on their findings, the children determined that the stream was healthy, Sara said.
"Mostly the stream was clear, except for when we walked in the mud and the water got dirty," said Sara, who wore a hat that she had colored and crafted to look like a deer's head. "But we found a lot of bugs and stuff, and they wouldn't live there if it was polluted water."
Another group that included Joshua Hennegan and Samuel Humphreys, both 8, and William White, 9, enjoyed the water, but were most impressed that they found all three of the markers in the woods during the orienteering project.
Three markers were set up in the woods along the trail. As the pupils found the markers, they were instructed to take the crayon tied to the marker and write the time they found it, said William.
"We found all three markers and it didn't take us too long," he said. "And the neatest part was when we found a box turtle. The girls were all scared, but so was the turtle. ... It went back in its shell."
Peggy Jones said she was amazed that the children found all of the markers. For their first attempt at orienteering, they did very well, she said.
"When we found the third marker, there was a loud cheer in the woods," said Jones, a science teacher at the school.
She said she was excited about the enthusiasm for science that the children were showing.
"When the children go to the stream, they will actually see the organisms that we have been studying about," she said. "They will see what water strikers and aquatic bugs look like."
Another aspect of the field day was laying mulch on the paths throughout the woods. Greg Patterson took a day off from his job at K Bank, where he works in construction lending, to help with the mulching project. He gave the science day two thumbs up.
"A biology book allows a child to see what a leaf looks like, but getting out here allows a child to see it up close and to touch it," said Patterson of Manchester.
Patterson's duties included telling the children where to dump the mulch and why they were doing it, he said.
"It's a lot of work to carry the mulch and dump it," Patterson said. "But these kids are all just so gung-ho."
Margarette Gatland is impressed with the life lessons the children are learning.
"The kids are out there looking at blades of grass, and they are seeing how intricate nature is," said Gatland, 42, of Westminster, whose son Jacob participated in the program. "No one grasps what nature really is until they are out in it. The kids are learning responsibility when they participate in the upkeep of the trails."
Jared Patterson enjoyed the worm relay. "Worms" [actually pasta painted different colors] were hidden in the grass and the students had to find as many worms as possible. Jared's group found an orange and a yellow one.
The project was designed to teach children about nature's camouflage.
"It's hard to see something that blends with the grass," Jared said. "We never found any of the green worms."
Jared assessed the program during his lunch break.
"This is one of the best science days ever," he said. "I think they should do it every year, for every grade. A lot of kids like getting wet and dirty, and touching bugs and stuff. They call it a science field day, but it's really just a whole lot of fun."