ANNA MARIA ISLAND -- Dozens of fifth-grade students from R.H. Prine Elementary School came back from the water, curiously observing their dip nets and yelling "I got a shrimp!" "I got a crabby!"
"Is this something?" asked 10-year-old Charlie Shakles, inching his net closer to one of Nature's Academy founders.
"That's called a sea squirt," responded Dana Pounds, president and executive director of Nature's Academy, a nonprofit dedicated to educating people about ecosystems and how to protect them.
The fifth-graders at Coquina Beach on Friday were just one of several groups of students taking field trips to the island this school year to learn about ecology, water quality and environment conservation, thanks to an agreement between Manatee County and the company that manages the beaches' concession stands.
"It's a public-private-nonprofit partnership," said Mike Whelan, programs and policies coordinator for Manatee County's parks and recreation department.
One of the proposals in the five-year agreement between Manatee County and United Park Services is that they provide environment and ecology education to public school students. Under the 2010 agreement, United Park Services runs the Manatee County beach concession and Coquina Beach concession, Whelan said.
"They are the leaders of tomorrow for Manatee County -- the more lives that we can touch and the more children that are exposed to this ... We saw this as something that would create environmental sustainability in the county by educating those who live here about its unique quality," Whelan said.
The elementary school students devote part of their day cleaning up the beach, going into the water carrying dip nets to collect sea animals and learn about their lives and habitats, and conducting water quality tests.
They also test their knowledge before and after the activities by answering a set of questions using a hand-held digital device which instantly tells them how well they did. About 87 percent of students demonstrate academic achievement in the post test, Pounds said.
Sarasota Bay Estuary Program is one of the nonprofit's main funding partners, with a $3,000 grant to help cover this year's trips.
Nature's Academy started in 2009, serving 300 students. Their goal is to provide program education to every fifth-grade student in Pinellas and Manatee counties by 2020, Pounds said. This school year they expect to serve about 1,500 students in both counties.
"They are great for a variety of reasons," Pounds said. "They are seen as the seniors of their elementary school and because of what happens after the field trips. It's not just a field trip."
The students are tasked with creating a project based on what they learn that they then present it to the entire school. They become "science ambassadors," Pounds said. The fifth-grade state standardized test also includes a science portion, she said.
"This stays with them when we go back to school," said Danelle Bommarito, who took 19 of her fifth-graders on the trip. "They absolutely love it ... this gives them an idea of what it is that we read about in textbooks."
Before splitting into groups and exploring different aspects of the beach, Pounds, who lost a leg to cancer four years ago, told the students how fortunate she was that mosquitoes only bit her on one leg, how she only had to clip toenails on her left foot and how she had this cool "robot leg."
"I had cancer," she said, "I had my leg amputated to save my life." Pounds wore shorts on Friday and told the children that if they had questions about her prosthetic leg or if they want it to see it closer they could do so during the lunch break.
"I'm falling. I'm still learning to run again," she said. She wants to run a marathon. "I want to let them know that my obstacles may be more obvious," Pounds said. "But we all have struggles and if you set your mind to it, you can do anything."
Miriam Valverde, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@MiriamValverde.