Animals bring science summer curriculum to life at Camp RISE

Way before he got to hold a preying mantis of his own, 8-year-old Abisai Tomas already read books and researched the insect on his own.

He knew the insect has two eyes on the side of its head and three more located between the main two. They live in forests and deserts.

Earlier this week , during the Camp RISE summer program run by the Manatee County School District’s Title I department, Tomas got to touch, feel and take home his very own tiny preying mantis.

“I liked it. It felt like it was jumping almost,” he said describing the vibrations his arm felt when he had the mantis on him.

The second-year program targets improving grade-level reading by engaging students in science. Incoming first-grade students focus on zoology and during the summer program are treated to a petting zoo. Incoming second-grade students focus on endangered animals and incoming third-grade students focus on reptiles. The older two sets of students, Tomas included, get to touch and feel animals through a visit from Pinellas County Reptiles.

“It enriches the experiences, it helps them build background for the year,” said Megan Johnson, a Title I coordinator in the district who helps run the summer program. “It makes them inquirers, they want to learn more.”

The district also runs a science-based summer camp for older students, called Camp SNAP. That program uses field trips to enrich science lessons.

The students are tested at the beginning and end of the sessions to watch for gains in reading levels. Science is a great way to include all the other subject areas and really engage the students in learning, Johnson said. In Camp RISE, students pick their own topic and work on their book throughout the camp, in addition to other science-based lessons.

“We’re basically previewing the next year’s science curriculum,” Johnson said.

Camp RISE also added a few classrooms for English Language Learners this year, a new addition to the program. The students take part in the same activities but get additional support.

At Oneco on Wednesday, squeals of delight and squeals of a baby pig emanated from a shaded area at the school, as incoming first-grade students got up close and personal with chickens, turkeys, goats, rabbits and the pig.

“It had little, little hairs,” 6-year-old Eduardo Garcia said after he held a baby chick. “It looked like a girl.”

Inside the school, in the reptile rooms, the older students learned a valuable life lesson from Pinellas County Reptiles owner Stacy Dunn.

“Anything with a mouth can bite,” she said.

In Dunn’s room, students met boa constrictors, giant African millipedes and a couple of albino checkered snakes.

Down the hall, Savannah Ray showed off bearded dragons, tailless whip scorpions and tarantulas. While some of the students were very adventurous, others were more cautious about having a bearded dragon crawl on their back.

Tomas, the student studying the preying mantis, declined to touch or feel any of the animals until Ray broke out the preying mantis.

“That’s my project,” he said. “This will help my project.”

Meghin Delaney: 941-745-7081, @MeghinDelaney