PANAMA CITY — The stingray shuffle started for dozens of first and second grade girls Thursday morning as part of the Seagrass Monitoring: Caring for the Nursery of the Sea program at Girls, Inc.
Learning how to avoid stingrays and other safety lessons were shortly followed by screams as a hermit crab was captured and placed in the wad-ing pool. Many of the girls said they had never seen one but quickly calmed down; until the crab came out of its shell and began crawling around the pool.
That interest and fascination is just what the marine biologist ordered.
Carly Karas, former Girls Inc. girl and University of West Florida graduate, came back to share her love of marine life with the girls during their week of sea grass programs.
“I love to teach that passion for science when they’re still young,” Karas said. “This can foster their interest in marine life, which especially for this area is immensely important. One of the few industries we have in Bay County is our commercial and recreational fishing, and sea grass beds are integral to the survival of that industry.”
Tammy Dunaway, Girls Inc. executive director, said it’s about teaching the value of the sea grass and local ecology. The program started with three local women writing a grant called EcoGulf: Stewards of Our Home. The sea grass learning experience is the pilot program under the grant in conjunction with the Stem Institute of Florida State University Panama City and was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coastal Program and Gulf Coast Workforce Center.
Dunaway also said this is not just the pilot program of the grant. It’s the beginning of more Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, STEM, programs at Girls Inc. in the coming year, including environmental and space science programs.
Gail Carmondy said the grant was written because the three women had been thinking about how to improve the community’s connection with the Gulf. That’s how the name, EcoGulf, came about.
“Eco means house and we’re talking about the management of the house, the study of the house,” Carmondy said. “It’s about the life out there [in the Bay] and how that life fits into our community from an economic standpoint. We wanted to integrate economics, science and civics into educa-tion. They are the future stewards.”
Ginger Littleton was another of the grant writers and said they also wanted a long range plan to have young people understand the local ecology and economy and how they work together.
“We call it paradise and it’s a huge economic engine for our area,” Littleton said. “So those two things are going to have to get put together for that really, true, deep appreciation of what we’ve got going and how important it is to preserve it.”
Karas led the sea grass excursions Wednesday and Thursday morning, showing the girls how to catch, identify and properly handle the wildlife in the bay. She said using the actual numbers of what they catch during the two days can have a bigger impact on the girls than using fictitious exam-ples.
She also led classroom instructions during the week with experiments, graphs, craft projects and how to journal their findings.