"Snake! Snake!" an eighth-grade student shouts from the boardwalk as she crosses a bridge. A dozen of her classmates rush over, scouring for the snake in the water. It's a Friday in April, and these North Carolina students are making their weekly trip from the science classroom into the stormwater wetlands behind Elizabeth City Middle School's baseball and soccer fields.
This manmade stormwater wetland, and the natural waterway it flows into, are more than just habitat for snakes, turtles and tadpoles. It's where students can learn about the environment "in living color," says teacher Darrell Walker.
"It's a classroom without walls," Walker tells his students. "Can we get this from a textbook?" They shake their heads no.
The wetland flows into the Pasquotank River, the town's primary source of drinking water located just a mile or so from the schoolyard. Last year, a specialist with the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute determined that runoff from the building, parking lots and athletic fields were draining into the existing wetlands, carrying oil and other hazardous material into the delicate ecosystem. So Walker pledged to tackle the problem.
He and his students partnered with the institute to plant native grasses and other marsh plants to filter the water coming off of the school grounds and transform it into a new habitat.
By the water, Walker's students point out a cloud of tadpoles living in the new pond. A few reach in and scoop the swimming pollywogs into their hands to examine them closer.
Tadpoles are a good thing, Walker explained. They're eating the algae and keeping the water clean. Today they're looking for examples of the four types of relationships in nature -- predation, commensalism, mutualism, and parasitism.
Walker turns them loose on the grounds, and the children, armed with cell phone cameras, return to him with plants, bones, moss, snapping turtles and lots of questions. If he can't identify it or explain it, he helps them send their photos and questions to professors at the nearby Elizabeth City State University.
And it doesn't stop at the food chain. The eighth graders learn chemistry by collecting water samples and measuring pH levels. They discuss sustainability -- how plastic bags and other trash contaminate the water.
Walker describes one touching moment where a group of his eighth grade girls found a turtle crossing their parking lot. He expected them to shy away from the reptile, but the girls instead formed a human shield around the animal, escorting it to the safety of the pond.
His goal is that they become good stewards of the environment and carry that message home to their families.
"We've only got this one planet and one shot," he says. "And we've got to get it right."