As Pia Woods worked with children at the Delta Rivers Nature Center, in an experiment involving eggs, she stressed the word “permeable.”
“Everybody say it,” she told the children, prompting a group recitation of the word.
Woods is a Jefferson County Cooperative Extension agent in the 4-H youth development program in the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. She was leading an experiment on Wednesday as part of a two-day Wild Science Day Camp, coordinated by the 4-H programs of Jefferson and Pulaski counties.
Woods was working with her daughter, Erica Williams, Pulaski County Cooperative Extension agent for the 4-H youth development program; and Cherrhonda McMiller, Jefferson County 4-H program assistant.
Woods said it’s been several years since the Wild Science Day Camp has been offered in the area. She said the camp is designed to help students hone their Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills, and also to educate them about wildlife and “plants and animals native to Arkansas.” About a dozen children, ages 10 to 13, participated.
As Woods showed children how liquids can seep into eggs that don’t have shells, she drew connections to the skins of various amphibians.
“We were talking about permeability and about how amphibians usually have permeable skin – and how pollutants or chemicals can harm our amphibian population,” she said after the experiment. She noted that permeability has its benefits, as well.
This interaction between animals and the larger environment also permeated earlier presentations by Delta Rivers Nature Center staff members, also part of the camp.
Lori Monday, education specialist with the center, discussed a cluster of animals, from bears to alligators, sketching for the children the ways they interacted with the environment. She talked, for instance, about the eating habits of black bears.
“They’re eating 90 percent insects and berries and acorns,” she said. “They’re not searching out people to eat. They’re omnivores, and they’re eating mostly plants and insects.”
As she role-played with students, who took on the parts of bears, Monday noted other facts about black bears, including the way they had been over-hunted in the area, and the ways in which they use their long, curved claws to climb trees when they sense danger.
The children were enthralled, even before several live animals made their appearances, with small lessons accompanying them as well. Monday was assisted by Morgan Bradley, administrative specialist at Delta Rivers Nature Center, and Mady Capriotti, an intern at the center who majors in biology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
The trio brought out two American alligators and a screech owl – creatures, Monday explained, that had not been sought out by staff members at the center. The alligators were brought to the center after they’d been fed by humans and had lost the ability to hunt their own food, and the owl had been brought in with an injury.
Regarding reptiles, and other wild animals, Monday cautioned the children against feeding them since such human-initiated feeding leads to the deterioration of the animals’ hunting skills.
“We think we’re helping them by feeding them, but we’re kind of harming them,” she said.
After the presentation, Monday stressed that center staff members were not wildlife rehabilitators.
“We work with wildlife rehabbers to get the animals back into the wild,” she said, though she noted that the animals she introduced to the children during the presentation would not be able to return. The owl is injured, and the alligators’ “innate sense to hunt has been removed by their interaction with people,” she said.
Monday emphasized the concept of caring as she reflected on the staff’s presentation to the children.
“We want to affect people in a way so that they care when they leave here,” she said. “We’re in the business of the conservation of wildlife, especially our native species.”
Woods noted that the children, who came from both Jefferson and Pulaski counties, had spent the previous day doing activities in Pulaski County, including animal skull identification with Becky McPeake, a professor and Extension wildlife specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. They had also, among other activities, explored the trails of the Delta Rivers Nature Center.
Woods noted the overall importance of the camp, both for the children and the wildlife.
“One of our goals was to expose them to these (natural elements), and hopefully spark an interest,” Woods said. “If we don’t all learn the importance of our wildlife, our native habitats, and our plants, then we run the risk of damaging them to extinction.”
Children reflected, toward the end of the camp, on lessons that especially moved them. Ava De Rossitte, 11, of Pulaski County, noted the “Toothache Tree,” or Zanthoxylum, at the Nature Center with leaves and other parts reputed to ease toothaches. Kaleigha Nwokeji, 13, of Jefferson County, recalled what she’d learned about the clear inner eyelids of alligators, which protect the eyes but allow the alligators to see underwater.
Tylen Miller, 10, of Pulaski County, was struck by the fact that 8 percent of Arkansas – and not more – consisted of wetland.
“It’s shocking (because) we used to be filled with water,” he said. “We need buildings, but we still need water and wetlands.”