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RACINE — With excited anticipation, small groups of fourth-graders gathered around crates of small river critters along the Root River near REC Center, 1301 W. Sixth St., Thursday morning.

Although they became very cautious as they tried to scoop up these critters — occasionally leaping up in fright as a small crawfish or catfish managed to escape — the students quickly turned to observing how these denizens of the Root River live.

“You kind of get to learn how other things live and how they can do stuff that is not the same way you can do things … and I find that interesting,” 9-year-old Calista Klein said later in the lesson. “You can see them move around and how scared they are. Some of the animals were calm and some got frightened.”

Calista and her classmates from Jefferson Lighthouse Elementary School, 1722 W. Sixth St., were among many fourth-grade classes from the Racine Unified School District to receive the same lesson on the Root River’s ecology this month at the Root River Environmental Education Community Center, or the REC Center.

The goal of the WATERshed program is teach students about the area’s system of streams, rivers and lakes and the importance of keeping that system healthy and safe for plants, animals and people, according to Nancy Carlson, program coordinator and naturalist at River Bend Nature Center.

“We live next to one of the biggest freshwater resources on our planet and this is so precious to us and that’s where our drinking water comes from,” she said of Lake Michigan. “Unless we raise a generation to care for this, they’re not going to care about this freshwater resource.”

In its eighth year, Carlson estimated that about 3,000 fourth- and seventh-graders get similar ecology field trips this year through the program, requiring them to test water quality, observe animals and learn about the watersheds of the Root and Pike rivers.

The WATERshed program, Carlson explained, is a partnership among the City of Racine, the Racine Unified School District, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Alliance for the Great Lakes and River Bend Nature Center, with financial support from other organizations and companies.

“They are very lucky to have Lake Michigan in their backyard, but they’re also responsible for taking care of it,” she said. “We not only want them to be aware of where their water is coming from … but we want them to take responsibility.”

Connie Boehm, fourth-grade teacher at Jefferson Lighthouse, said she would have a tough time getting students as interested in ecology if she were to teach the same lesson in the classroom.

“It’s just nice to get out and for them to be able to actually see the river and test it and digs their hands it,” she said.

Nine-year-old Kadyn Basrch recommended the spot beneath the Sixth Street bridge as an excellent place to spot wildlife and learn about the Root River.

“Tons of people should come and look at all of the nature and stuff here,” he said. “It’s a good experience and it can help you learn.”

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