Hundreds of Ottawa County fifth graders recently experienced hands-on learning about Lake Erie wildlife conservation, thanks in part to educators from Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory.
More than 400 students attended the 61st Annual Fifth Grade Conservation Field Day, hosted by the Ottawa County Soil and Water Conservation District in September at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Several partnering agencies, including Ohio Sea Grant, helped teach kids about topics ranging from fish habitat to forestry.
“My opening message to the kids is always: I’m not the future caretaker of this lake, your teacher is not the future caretaker of this lake, you are,” said Sue Bixler, education and outreach specialist for Stone Laboratory.
Bixler, who has participated in the event every year since 2012, helped fifth graders understand the importance of snakes. At her station, students could meet Leonard, an eastern fox snake, and hold him. The snake is misunderstood, Bixler said, and is a threatened species in Ohio, only found in six counties.
“People don’t like snakes, so it’s a really tough animal to present with. You have to show them the upside to what their role in the environment is, which is to keep that pest population down,” Bixler said.
Eastern fox snakes like Leonard can mimic and be mistaken for rattlesnakes, yet the animals are actually very docile, she explained. Snakes also eat animals that carry disease and insects that harm crops.
“The kids get inquisitive, I get all kinds of questions, and they get a chance to interact,” Bixler said. “When you ask them ‘what are you going to take away from this today?’ it’s pretty a positive the message they’re walking away with.”
The two-day, annual event began on a local farm in 1962, moved to the wildlife refuge in the 70s, and since then has served more than 30,000 students. At this year’s event, students from every school district in Ottawa County shuffled through nine different educational stations that incorporate state science standards for fifth graders.
Tory Gabriel, extension program leader for Ohio Sea Grant, ran a station teaching kids all about fish and the importance of protecting their habitat. For many students, this was their first time touching and handling a fish.
“I have live specimens of major parts of the aquatic food web, from fish to macroinvertebrates to zooplankton to algae, which helps them understand how much aquatic life exists in wetlands and how important they are to the Lake Erie ecosystem,” said Gabriel, who has attended the event for almost 15 years. “They get to feel the scales of a fish, see what mayflies look like as nymphs, and watch thousands of zooplankton swim around in a jar.”
The lesson ultimately helps kids learn how important wetlands, habitats, and water quality are to fish and other aquatic life, Gabriel said. Meanwhile, the event can have a huge impact when just one child out of hundreds is inspired by what they learned, Bixler added.
“There’s ways that we’re impacting people that you’d never guess in a million years,” she said. “I come out there and do the best I can to carry my message, but is there one kid who turns around and is able to and say, ‘I want to go on and pursue this?’ You never know how you’re impacting a kid.”
Other agencies present at the event included the Ohio Department of National Resources, Ottawa Sandusky Seneca Solid Waste District, OSU Extension, 4H, and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory.
Ohio Sea Grant is supported by The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) School of Environment and Natural Resources, Ohio State University Extension, and NOAA Sea Grant, a network of 34 Sea Grant programs nation-wide dedicated to the protection and sustainable use of marine and Great Lakes resources. Stone Laboratory is Ohio State’s island campus on Lake Erie and is the research, education, and outreach facility of Ohio Sea Grant and part of CFAES School of Environment and Natural Resources.