Hamilton Mill's Puckett's Mill Elementary has Gwinnett County School's only habitat display

Hamilton Mill’s Puckett's Mill Elementary has Gwinnett County School’s only habitat display

When Puckett’s Mill teacher Julie Hitt decided to develop the first Georgia habitat display that fills a Gwinnett classroom, she wasn’t confident that it would come to fruition.

“I never thought it would be funded in the first place,” said Hitt, who teaches at Puckett’s Mill Elementary, an elementary attended by Hamilton Mill students.

But a month ago, the Mill Creek Cluster Education Foundation funded her “Hands on Habitat” with a second grant, a year after the first grant kick-started the project. The total grant funding is $10,100, and makes Puckett’s Mill believed to be the only Gwinnett County school that has a classroom filled with creatures, plants, rocks, minerals, skulls and a wasp nest.

“Our goal is that it continues to grow and becomes a mini-Fernbank,” said Puckett’s Mill Principal Ruth Westbrooks, referring to the museum of natural history in Atlanta.

Walk through Hitt’s habitat, and you’ll see fresh and salt water fish and shark tanks, a red-eared slider turtle named Delilah, hamsters named Fast and Furrious, bearded dragons named Phineas and Ferb, three frogs, which were found on the school’s playground, and a hermit crab.

Teachers and Westbrooks, who donated the wasp nest, have made contributions. One gave a large mouth bass that hangs on the wall, while another donated Delilah.

The room, which is categorized by Georgia’s five habitats, could be more crowded, but Hitt said she had to draw a line.

“I have more deer skulls in here than you would ever want,” Hitt said. “If I had kept every bird’s nest I’d ever gotten, we wouldn’t be able to walk in here. We’ve kind of had to have the talk, ‘If it’s happy in nature, let it stay in nature.’”

Hitt isn’t the only one at the school who works in the classroom. She has six “Habitat Helpers,” who are students who feed the animals and clean cages. One student, fourth-grader Katherine Martin, took the hamsters and hermit crab home over winter break.

“This is just a great experience to have fun with the animals. It’s just fun to do and a great way to spend the time, especially this time of year because it’s cold outside,” Katherine said.

In order to become a habitat helper, students had to write an essay they described as a sort of job application to help out.

“I just thought animals were there and some people would like to play with them,” Katherine said. “Then I thought, ‘Why don’t I start liking animals and start taking care of them.”

What Westbrooks likes about the room is it is available to students in all grades throughout the school. The fish tanks are especially enjoyed by special education students.

Second-graders work on life cycle projects, while third-graders study rocks and minerals, for example. At times during a given week, Hitt has laptop computers around the room so students can research the plants and animals.

While students are well-versed in technology and are well-traveled, they don’t necessarily know a lot about habitats near them, Hitt said.

It’s all exceeded her initial expectations.

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