Candyce Boykin, an Oceans in Motions instructor with The Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach, recently showed some excited fourth-graders at Brookfield Elementary various animals found in the ocean.
"These animals are all alive, and you're going to get to touch them all," she said. "Yesss!" replied the students in unison.
This particular bunch was in teacher Laurie Katz' class, and they and others in the school got to learn about aquatic life firsthand from The Virginia Aquarium's traveling aquarium, Oceans in Motion.
"We're tying this in with our social studies unit because the Tidewater area — where the Chesapeake Bay is — is one of the regions of Virginia we're studying," said Katz. "The sixth grade does a unit on sea life as part of their science curriculum."
Before the fourth-graders got to touch the tiny sea creatures, Boykin told them which ones do and do not have backbones, and she warned them to touch them "very gently, with just one finger."
"All invertebrates from the Atlantic Ocean or parts of the Chesapeake Bay live in salt water, or brackish water — a mix of fresh and salt water," she said. "And it's important to keep their environment clean because, if they're not healthy and we eat them, we'll get sick, too."
Boykin told the children that "fish have bones like we do," but starfish — also called sea stars — do not. She then lifted a starfish out of a small tank of water and showed them how his body bends when not in the water. "He uses the water to support his body, like we use our bones," she explained. "And he has a water vascular system, using water to get oxygen throughout his body."
Boykin told the students that water powers the starfish's tube feet, which can stick to things. "His mouth is in the middle of his body, and he has eye spots on the tip of each of his feet," she added. She then told them about the sea star's cousin, the sea urchin, whose body is covered with long spines.
"They're both part of the echinoderm family," she told her eager audience. "'Echino' means spiny, and 'derm' means skin." She said the sea urchin eats clams, oysters and scallops and has a mouth with five teeth in the bottom of his body.
Next, Boykin showed the children different types of whelks, which are snails. "Their shells grow with them, and they can have 25-50 babies," she said. "And they have a hinged, 'trap door' to cover their openings so they won't get eaten." Boykin also displayed a hermit crab, explaining that it's a scavenger, while whelks are carnivores.
Then the students went outside to visit the truck containing the traveling aquarium. There, The Virginia Aquarium's Sarah Robbins taught them about the four different habitats they'd see inside the truck, and the creatures within them:
1. Sea grasses — with lookdown fish, tautog and perch; 2. Pier piling — with spade fish and a puffer fish; 3. Sandy bottom of the ocean — with skates; and 4. Shipwreck — with sea stars, sea urchins, whelks and hermit crabs.
Students were given cards with pictures of various creatures to find in the habitats. Then they traded cards with each other and searched for new animals.
Afterward, Eva Melendez, 9, said, "It was cool because we got to see real, live animals. I liked the starfish because it's kind of like from my country, El Salvador. And I liked seeing the rays in the truck because they seemed so friendly."
Tori Rupert, also 9, especially liked the puffer fish "because they were neat to learn about. I learned that, when they get scared, they blow up. I also liked touching the starfish."
Taylor Jenkins, 9 1/2, liked the lookdown fish best. "It has a cool shape to its body, it's really fast, it's poisonous sometimes and it shines like neon fish in the light and dark," he said.
"My favorite was the hermit crab because one of my friends, also named Patrick, has a pet hermit crab and he let me touch it," said Patrick Lesch, 9 1/2. "This was neat because we got to see and touch different kinds of animals and see where they live and how they move."