Jackson County students get a feel for the great outdoors

Sure, it’s all around us. But how much do we really know about our environment?

That was the big question posed to sixth-grade students at the Pascagoula-Gautier School District’s annual “My Two Boots — A Walk in the Wetlands” on Thursday.

Teachers and environmental experts from across South Mississippi took turns talking to students on the area’s ecosystem and wildlife.

“Wetlands is important,” Trent Lott Academy teacher Sybil Wilner said. “It’s important to look after its future. That’s one of the things the kids learn here.”

Wilner helped to start the event 16 years ago. Its participation has grown from one class to more than 600 students in that time.

Scientists and conservationists brought the kind of props kids love — or hate.

Some brought snakes. Some brought turtles. Some brought shark teeth. Others brought insects, fish, birds and plants.

Kids also learned to kayak in the pond in front of the school.

Several students impressed the experts with their knowledge, especially of snakes.

“Does anyone know what kind of snake this is and what does its colors mean?” marine biology instructor Noel Lamey asked.

“That’s a king snake and it’s colored that way to confuse with a corral snake which is poisonous,” a student answered.

At another booth, Lamey’s son, Aaron, a marine educator at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, showed off the jawbone and teeth of a shark.

A gasp was heard as Lamey pulled out a giant megalodon tooth. A megladon is an extinct species of shark that lived millions of years ago during the Cenozoic Era.

Some students said they believed the megladon was still alive in the oceans, but hard to find.

“I’m always surprised by what these kids know. I’m surprised by how familiar they are with this topic,” Lamey said.

Vancleave Live Oak Choctaw representatives explained their history. Terry Ladner, or “Rolling Thunder” in Choctaw vernacular, showed off a carved and decorated staff with an eagle’s foot at its base.

Dennis McGrury of the Department of Marine Wildlife explained the importance of insects to the ecosystem with a walk down a nature trail.

“Plants and the soil need the nutrients insects provide as part of the ecosystem,” he said.

Robert Smith of Wildlife Mississippi discussed conservation concerns. He exhibited the shell of the endangered gopher tortoise. He also showed off a box turtle to the students.

“A lot of things are making it harder and harder for them to survive,” he said.

Other organizations involved included the Pascagoula Audubon Center, Wild at Heart Rescue, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Recreational Leadership team, the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Gulf Coast Research Lab.

“The kids learn a little bit about everything,” Wilner said. “It’s not just about science. There’s art, math, PE and language arts here, too. That was the goal from the beginning and it has grown — as you can see — over the years.”

Justin Vicory: 228-896-2326, @justinvicory