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Wilderness is the classroom at wetlands school


May 20, 2010 at 12:20 a.m.
Updated May 22, 2010 at 12:22 a.m.

Industrial High School sophomore Dena DeBord, 16, studies a water pH sampling kit at the Formosa Tejano  Wetlands school. The school brings thousands of local students to the wetlands to learn science each year.

LA WARD - Their classroom is the wilderness and their teacher a general science instructor in leopard-patterned rubber boots.

The lesson today: water pH levels.

But unlike their high school laboratory, student learning here happens in the wetlands - the Formosa Tejano Wetlands Outdoor Classroom that is.

"If it's not interesting, teenagers won't remember it," said Dorie Walton, a 16-year-old junior at Industrial High School. "This is actually interesting."

The school, a partnership between Formosa Plastics Corps. and schools in Jackson and Calhoun counties, brings in thousands of students during the school year. The classroom began hosting students in 2008.

Armed with nets and professional-grade water sampling kits the class took water samples from the wetlands and caught wildlife. Snakes, catapillars and bug bites are common here, but the students don't mind.

"You can't break the wilderness," said Dena DeBord, a 16-year-old sophomore at Industrial High School, who explained why she enjoys the experience.

She admitted usually spilling beakers and being rather clumsy in the classroom, but the thought of being outdoors was more fun.

"Science in a book is not fun," said instructor Debra Sonsel. "The real deal is what's fun and what catches kids... it's all based on stuff out here."

Dena, who said she came to see the bug collection, hopes to study nursing after high school and believes the experience outside the classroom will help her remember science.

"You get the field experiences," Dena said. "You can see it versus just the four walls."

Out in the field, students watch for leeches, beetles and snakes, while Sonsel supervises in her rubber boots.

"This is heaven on Earth," she said explaining her job.

Sonsel's husband actually helped begin the school after noticing many students missing science-related questions on standardized tests.

Her goal as an instructor is simple:

"Trying to take what they're learning in the classroom and showing them that it really is in the real world," she said. "It really does happen."

But the school isn't just for children. Sonsel also offers classes for master gardeners and the general public. The wetlands are also open to bird watchers and outdoor enthusiasts.

But as for the goal of lifelong learning, students agree what happens in the marshes will stay in their minds.

"You're going to remember it a few years from now," Dorie said.



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