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A handful of girls stood on the slippery bank of Lookout Creek on Wednesday, clustered around a plastic container full of water, peering down at the many-legged creatures floating inside.
Several of them bravely let the larvae of dragon flies and damsel flies perch on their fingers while the boys in the group dabbled in the murky water with nets and shovels, looking for creepy crawlies.
Tina Crawford, with the Tennessee Environmental Council, brings the students out into nature every Tuesday and Wednesday as part of a summer youth program put on by the Alton Park Piney Woods Development Corporation.
"I'm part of getting these kids connected to the dirt," she said.
On Wednesday, a group of 15 or so gathered on the bank of the creek beneath Cummings Highway with ecologists Bill Phillips and Larry Carter, who own Envision Ecology.
"We're having them collect immature insects so we can see how clean the water is," Phillips said. "We want them to gain a little appreciation for the fact that clean water is one of the biggest challenges of their generation, and unless they do something quick, it'll be too late."
Wednesday's group of ecologists-in-training was part of a larger summer camp of more than 300 children from some of Chattanooga's most at-risk neighborhoods.
Dr. Elenora Woods, president of the Alton Park Development Corporation, said the camp has a many-faceted focus.
The camps offers job and interview training, hip hop lessons, and tutoring in reading and writing, in addition to the environmental aspect.
The kids certainly demonstrated their willingness to learn. They had no problem catching on to the lessons Phillips and Carter offered.
Jaylah Radden, 14, was impressed with how important clean water is.
"It determines the life of everything in the water," Radden said. "I don't mind getting dirty if it helps the environment."
Woods said the program, which is free for all participants and runs through most of June and July, will cost around $210,000 by the end of the summer.
So far, staff and volunteers have paid for expenses out of pocket, but Woods said donations would be very welcome.
"We're begging Chattanooga to get involved," she said.
Contact staff writer Lindsay Burkholder at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.