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From shell to shell: Kids raise, release turtles

  • Free Willy Day
    Free Willy Day  Colton Coolbaugh (center) points at some of the baby turtles that are about to be released in Lake Matoaka as part of "Free Willy Day."  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Free Willy Day
    Free Willy Day  About 40 turtles were released as part of the event. The turtles were cared for by the kindergarteners from the time they were mere eggs.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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About 40 kindergarteners from Matthew Whaley Elementary School flocked around the dock at William & Mary's Keck Environmental Field Lab today to release the baby turtles they had raised from eggs.

The liberation of the turtles, dubbed "Free Willy Day" by Keck Lab Director Randy Chambers, has occurred annually for five years as part of a program designed to teach local children about the animals and their ecosystems.

Each year, Chambers provides the classes with pond turtle eggs found along the shores of Lake Matoaka. He also gives them detailed instructions on how to care for the eggs and the resulting turtles.

"The turtles are not endangered," said Chambers. "The eggs simply offer opportunities to view part of the reptile life cycle."

Chambers said that the teachers "do all the work to infuse their lesson plans with turtle tidbits that I hope make learning more fun."

"Compared to hatching chicks, the turtles are smaller but less messy," he said. "And because the students get the chance to release the baby turtles to their native habitat, the children can appreciate the link between the animal and its ecosystem."

Debbie Zanca, a Matthew Whaley kindergarten teacher who led today's field trip, said that the turtle program has "greatly improved learning for our students."

"(The turtle eggs) have been a vehicle to teach many of the Virginia Standards of Learning, not just limited to ones for science," she said. "The children have read about turtles, written about turtles, and done mathematical problems with the turtles as the focus."

As a result of the program, the students have shown "increased interest and excitement about science education," Zanca said.

"It is so important that children have real-world, hands-on experiences that will help them make connections in their education," she said.