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August Miller, Deseret Morning News
Derrick Bynum, left, Kyle Parkinson, Hartford Christensen look for insect nymphs and larvae.

KAYSVILLE — Second-grader Mary Bowers' favorite school day was last Thursday. She likes bugs, frogs, tadpoles and squirmy things that make some girls her age shudder. And she can explain the complexities of the natural food chain with ease.

So when her Kaysville Elementary teacher, Jackie Poll, took the class to the Utah Botanical Center for a science field trip last week, Mary was in her element.

About 75 second-graders scampered around the grounds engaging in activities offered by the center, which is part of the College of Agriculture at Utah State University.

Thousands of cars drive past the site, located off the Kaysville I-15 exit, each day but few know that the ponds on the side of the freeway are actually man-made wetlands comprised of rain water and stocked with fish. The area is home to more than a dozen types of birds and welcomes fishermen, nature-watchers and schools to come and enjoy the preserve.

Mark Larese-Casanova, program specialist at the center, describes the area as an island of nature in the middle of development. Surrounded by housing developments, businesses and the interstate, the 100-acre preserve includes a greenhouse, orchard, gardens and open space.

The Utah Botanical Center has been in existence for about five years now. It was built after a freeway interchange replaced the former Utah Botanical Gardens. The center is part of a 10-year project that will eventually include a visitors center, cafe and library.

Casanova said this is just the second year the preserve has been conducting field trips. They are able to offer hands-on science learning activities related to Utah's habitat for all grades in a curriculum written in line with the state core.

"It's about trying to get kids to appreciate nature more, and it is also about using resources a little more wisely," Casanova said. "With the ever-growing population in this state we end up having fewer and fewer resources . . . we try to help people learn to conserve resources and eventually create a healthier, happier environment."

So far about a thousand students, many from Davis County, have visited the site. Casanova said they are booked solid this spring with school visits.

"Davis is one of the biggest districts in the state and a lot of schools have to travel quite a ways to go on field trips," Casanova said. "By offering them here we provide field trips for hundreds of school in the vicinity."

The Kaysville students were even able to walk to the center and spent two hours doing activities from fishing for bugs and identifying animals to food chain relays.

"One of our goals is to make it as multidisciplinary as we can," Casanova said. "Teachers are so strapped these days and for some they only get one trip a year." The center combines wildlife and wetland activities, plant science activities, and energy and water conservation activities into one trip.

"You can see it in a text and talk about it but when you can actually experience it there is nothing like it," said Poll. "Food and bugs — you will always keep their attention."

The center also features the Utah House, a spacious and open model house that demonstrates ways of building facilities and landscapes that are energy-efficient and conserve water. The model home, with its strategically placed windows and cutting-edge appliances, only uses 60 percent of the water and energy the average house does.

It often houses training sessions for developers and designers in resource-efficient building that fit the center's mission — raising awareness among all generations to preserve natural resources.

In the future the center will also be the site of a 9/11 memorial designed by the Davis County Youth of Promise, which will be a garden and wall honoring those who died in 2001 as well as those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The center will be holding an Arbor Day celebration on April 23 that will feature outdoor workshops, crafts and spring gardening tutorials. For more information on the Utah Botanical Center visit www.utahbotanicalcenter.org.

E-mail: terickson@desnews.com