BRADENTON — Outside Manatee Elementary School on Thursday morning, Stefan Denis bent over a portable touch tank and stared into the clear saltwater below.
Beside him, his third-grade classmates quickly plunged their hands into the glass tank to feel sea creatures, including a horseshoe crab and sea urchin.
For about a minute, Stefan apprehensively eyed a dark brown starfish below him. Eventually, the boy mustered up courage, put his hand into the water and gently picked it up.
When he realized the animal was harmless, he took a deep breath, then smiled.
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“I thought it was gonna bite me,” said the nine-year-old. “It was nice, it was soft like a couch.”
Stefan and hundreds of other Manatee Elementary students Thursday experienced the touch tank and a slew of other displays in the Mote Mobile Exhibit, an aquarium on wheels from Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.
The visit was part of an end-of-the-first-quarter celebration and a reward for students who scored well on Manatee Elementary’s school-wide discipline plan, said Jill Hougland, a guidance counselor on the school’s discipline committee. The plan includes incentives to reward good behavior, so those who demonstrated good behavior were treated to some spend time at the exhibit.
The exhibit wasn’t their only reward Thursday. They also got to wear street clothes to school instead of school uniforms, and were treated to ice cream after lunch.
Of the school’s 389 kindergarten through fifth grade students, 275 participated in the event.
“That’s a bunch of good kids,” said Hougland.
Glenn Markos, coordinator of the mobile exhibit, said he and the volunteers who oversee the display visit about 50 schools and other events statewide each year for the learning experience.
In addition to the touch tank, children observed informational displays on sharks, sea turtles and other sea creatures in a 1,200-gallon tropical fish tank.
“This is a manta ray’s barb,” said Mote volunteer Linda Schaich, who stood over one of the dry displays speaking to students. “It’s small, but when it stings it can hurt for months.”
Nearby, fellow volunteer Robert Lucia pointed to antennae and leg parts on the exoskeleton of a large spiny lobster.
“They don’t have claws,” he said. “Does anyone have any questions about it?”
Eight-year-old Javier Mata’s hand shot up. “Does it have a mouth?” he asked. His classmates giggled.
“Sure does,” Lucia said, then pointed to the lobster’s mouth.
Austin Mills, age 8, said the exhibit wasn’t just a visual experience for him.
“I learned about the life cycle of a hermit crab,” Austin said.
He said he especially liked holding the sea urchin in the touch tank.
“It was pretty cool,” he said, then smiled. “I never got to see any of those things ’til now.”