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A fishy field trip — or why everybody has to get out of the office every now and then

Tyler August third grader from Leggee Elementary School Huntley looks jellyfish Shedd Aquarium Chicago Friday morning during his class' field

Tyler August, a third grader from Leggee Elementary School in Huntley looks at jellyfish at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago Friday morning during his class' field trip. The group won the trip by competing in the Shedd's Wreath-Cycled Challenge over Christmas. Shedd Aquarium's Wreath-Cycled Challenge is a competition where local classes worked together to create wreaths made of recycled materials which were displayed as part of Shedd’s holiday décor. | Michael R. Schmidt ~ For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 22, 2013 10:51AM

I met up with second- and third-grade classes from Huntley’s Leggee Elementary School on their field trip to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium last week, and they were nice enough to ask me to join them for lunch.

One of the boxes left for me to choose held a ham sandwich.

Back in my grade school days (when the dinosaurs ruled the Earth), the brown paper bag I brought from home — be it to Catholic school or on the road to a field trip — held one of those.

At the Shedd, I opted for a veggie wrap, which I am pretty sure wasn’t an option when I was a kid.

And that, dear reader, is the essential value of a field trip: One day, maybe sooner than later, it will stir a memory. Memories, at the very least, lead to stories, and stories might even lead to inspiration.

OK, there’s also the fact that a field trip is a day out of the office for a kid, away from having to learn things in order to take standardized tests to remain competitive in who knows what with some kid somewhere in China — and a chance to see things in real life you might have only read about in a book or spotted on the all-consuming Internet.

As Shedd Aquarium (and Lincoln Park Zoo) auxiliary board member Andrew Bleiman put it, field trips “are an opportunity to engage directly with something you might be learning about, from which you can gain empathy and awareness.”

Prize winners

Bleiman, a marketing consultant, came to his interest in nature when he was a kid and his family would take monthly trips to the Bronx Zoo. He might be proud of how the students from Leggee were able to get the Shedd visit.

Last Christmas time, third-grade teacher Kate McCormick’s students worked with their reading buddies in the second-grade class of Lisa Kunde on making an ecologically themed wreath of recyclable materials for a Shedd contest. Fans could vote by “liking” the creations on the Shedd’s Facebook page.

The classes were able to get more than 1,700 votes, which won them a free, all-inclusive field trip to the Shedd, with full access to the aquarium, a lab and free lunch, with the Shedd also picking up the tab for transportation and for chaperones.

According to information provided by the aquarium, between 293,000 and 314,000 students took field trips to the Shedd each of the last three years.

“We do have a group rate for out-of-state schools and for schools in the state of Illinois,” the Shedd’s Elise Waugh said. “The only difference in the rates is that Illinois school groups receive free general admission and free admission to the Oceanarium.”

Waugh is Coordinator for Communications & Public Relations in the External Affairs & Communications department, According to her, in 2012 Shedd subsidized nearly $1.45 million for school children throughout Illinois, with more than 114,000 visiting Shedd with free admission. And for economically disadvantaged Chicago Public Schools, Shedd’s bus fund program, sponsored by Target, provided 289 buses last year.

With their trip, the 49 kids from Leggee were split into two groups upon arrival (after dealing with godawful Chicago traffic) to hear about animal habitats.

All the talk of cowfish, little shrimp, small lobsters and at least two types of crabs had me picturing the U-shaped tanks at a sushi bar. But pretty much everything makes me hungry.

Third-grader Cono De Luca, who was at the Shedd for the first time, got at least one fact out of the sessions — that turtles are attached to their shells and pretty much can’t leave home without them.

Classmate Sophia Hartman could spout back that an animal habitat includes food, shelter, air and water. (But not clothing, which is one of the things I know that separates us from other species.) She had been to the aquarium before and loved seeing the dolphins.

Teacher memories

Dolphin shows are what Kunde said she recalled from her trips as a kid to the Shedd, and she joked that if she had not become a teacher, she might have become an animal trainer. Both Kunde and McCormick said they try to get at least two field trips in each school year.

“They help make real-world connections and solidify what they are learning in class,” Kunde said.

Her approach also included trying to make learning fun — and she brought along a student teacher on a stick to make that point. Natalie Bullock’s school schedule wouldn’t allow her to tag along, so Kunde had a cutout image of Bullock that she and others were taking pictures with next to the aquarium’s attractions.

Speaking of photos, it was nice to see kids (perhaps because of their ages and/or being on a field trip) without smartphones glued to them, apparently not going into withdrawal about feeling the need to tweet or Facebook post everything that was happening around them. Oh, to return to that age of innocence, when people had to store memories in their brains, not on a chip.

So, faces pressed against the tanks, six third-graders stared into the Wild Reef tank, as a shark stuck to the glass, seeming to look back. While looking at jellies, talk turned to Sponge Bob, as it should if you are in third grade.

Again, I got hungry, as some of those jellies reminded me of big portobello mushrooms. Luckily, it was time to eat, where I learned that along with recycling, the Shedd composts unwanted lunch food and scraps.

I headed home, while the students spent the rest of the afternoon on their visit. Fielding through my preliminary notes, I found a quote from Melissa Williams, vice president of learning at Shedd Aquarium, who said there is evidence suggesting that if you go to the museum as a child, you will return as an adult.

And I forgot to check out her recommendation: archerfish, which shoot water at insects to nab them as meals.

Again with the food. But that’s almost as cool — but not as unappetizing — as the anatomical human cadaver slices I remember encountering a long, long time ago in a hall at the Museum of Science and Industry.

The archerfish are at least as cool as playing tag with cheap, toy plunger-tipped dart guns in the largely empty Field Museum on a New Year’s Eve, once upon a time when I was in college — before such behavior would have gotten me arrested and on cable news.

Which, like in “The Lion King,” brings this column full circle of life. Or something like that. That’s to say, I have stories about going to museums and aquariums as a kid. Now I am a writer about kids going to a museum.

A kid goes and maybe becomes a marine biologist or at least learns which fish not to eat so that those fish are left for other kids to eat one day down the line. Or not.

Maybe he or she just sees something neat, which Williams called “a sense of wonder and awe.”

And everybody needs a little bit of that out of life from time to time.

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