By Matt Wiley

Fresh water is the most precious resource on the planet, and students at several New Tampa schools soon will focus on the importance of its conservation, thanks to grants from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (aka “Swiftmud”).

The grants are part of Swiftmud’s “Splash!” school grant program, which provides teachers with up to $3,000 to educate their students about local watersheds, conservation, quality and water supply. Swiftmud’s Splash! program has helped teach students about Florida’s water system since 1997.

“The schools were chosen through a lottery system,” says Melissa Gulvin, education coordinator for Swiftmud. “This year, we received 56 applications from schools in Hillsborough County.”

In New Tampa, students in Jane Kemp’s fourth- and fifth-grade gifted class at Lawton Chiles Elementary, Jennell Graham’s fifth-grade math and science classes at Pride Elementary and Michele Paschal’s third-fifth-grade self-contained autism class at Tampa Palms Elementary are among the students at 94 different public schools in Swiftmud’s 16-county region that will take part in water-resources programs available through the grants, 34 of which are Hillsborough County schools.

To be eligible to receive a grant, teachers had to fill out an extensive application that addressed the number of students involved, their grade level, an estimate of the budget needed for the teacher’s program, a list of the items would need to be purchased, a description of the activities in which students would take part in and out of the classroom, a message and a goal, or what the students would take away from the activities.

The program also has to relate to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and address one of the Sunshine State Standards—a level of knowledge a student must be able to demonstrate by the end of their current grade level.

While schools can be awarded up to $3,000, Gulvin explains that the amount awarded is entirely need-based.

Kemp’s class at Chiles was awarded $1,699. Her fourth- and fifth-grade gifted students will be learning about the water cycle, water pollution and aquifer recharging during a field trip to Sweetwater Organic Farm in Town N’ Country, as well as maintain a water-conserving garden at the school, while monitoring water use in the garden.

“Getting the grant is awesome for the kids,” Kemp says. “It gives (the kids) an opportunity to do some real hands-on activities to learn about water conservation.”

She says that once the peat and soil arrive, her students will begin work on growing tomatoes, lettuce, peppers onions and herbs, while using water conservation techniques.

Graham’s math and science classes at Pride were awarded $2,800 toward a field trip to Tampa Bay Watch in Tierra Verde in southern Pinellas County, to learn about estuary habitats. The students also will learn how weather patterns are affected by the water cycle, as well as the importance of rainwater as a water source while they keep track of local rainfall.

“It feels great to be able to provide a good, quality field trip for the kids,” Graham says. “(The grant) really helps because Tampa Bay Watch is out of Hillsborough County, so we can’t use school buses. We have to rent charter buses. The grant covers that cost.”

Graham’s class visited Tampa Bay Watch on February 19, where they measured water quality in the Tampa Bay estuary, took samples and, using powerful stereoscopes, were able to see plankton and other living things in the water, before dissecting some squid.

“(The kids) really enjoyed it,” Graham explains. “The trip relates to our benchmark, what we’re teaching in the classroom at the time. Plus, they’re outside in nature.”

Paschal’s class at Tampa Palms Elementary received a grant for $2,984, which will help fund an experiment in which her autistic students collect rain water in barrels to supply water for the school’s garden. The students will share what they learn on the school’s morning news TV program and create a newsletter for the community.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for my students,” says Paschal of her third through fifth grade self-contained autism students. “It’s an opportunity for (my students) to have outdoor sensory experiences, which is really important for them.”

Paschal explains that the majority of her students are non-verbal, but are excited about the vegetables that they are growing in the school’s garden and are trying to communicate the changes in the colors of different vegetables to the other students.

“The outdoor activities are really helpful for developing their communication and social skills,” Paschal explains.

She says that the class also is harvesting the vegetables they are growing and cooking with them in the classroom once a week, serving up dishes such as homemade salsa, pizza sauce and more.

“My room smells good,” she says.

For more information about Swiftmud’s Splash! program, please visit SWFWMD.State.FL.US and click on the “Education” tab.

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