Regardless of the special event of the day when everyone has to look their best science gets messy and the science classroom at times will show all the joys of discovery. Even on Picture Day.

At Taylor Ranch Elementary School, while class photos were being taken in the front, teacher Jackie Detert went into the science room and looked around. It wasn’t the type of room to keep students clean and looking their best for pictures.

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Water spilled on the floor. Soggy newspaper on the tables. Dirt, sand and other elements were in the plastic tubs, just waiting to dirty children’s clothes or creep under their fingernails. In other words, it was a science experiment in progress.

“Don’t get any dirt on you, or you’ll be known as the dirty class,” warned Detert as she assembled her students to get their photographs taken.

Recently, the science lab teacher Lisa Figueroa — the instigator of this messy classroom — was crowned Sarasota County Schools’ top educator of the year.

Figueroa was recognized for concocting hands-on experiments to teach the Venice students about science and the world around them. It was the joy of learning — the antithesis of giving out standardized tests or maintaining a tidy classroom with carpet.

“You actually get to be a kid,” said fifth-grader Josi Elliott, 10. “You get to have fun and be messy, like you’re supposed to.”

Step into Figueroa’s classroom and by the door on a bulletin board hang plastic bags filled with a snake skin somebody found on the playground or a dead dragonfly a child treasured.

She still keeps two dozen balloons from when she won the Teacher of the Year award.

Figueroa teaches all the students in grades K-5 in the science lab, which is considered an elective class like gym or art.

The stakes were high on a recent Thursday.

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It was FCAT boot camp as Figueroa reviewed the old concepts from third and fourth grade in case they snuck up on her fifth-graders’ tests.

She taught about erosion and weathering — how nature broke down beaches, the mountains, rivers and land.

But it wasn’t a boring science lesson, no sitting at desks or reading textbooks.

They blew through straws — the wind — to show how it eroded the sand. They used a squirt gun to simulate rain eating away at a mountain, or potted soil.

“I’m expecting a mess. The degree of the mess is what you’re in control of,” Figueroa told her students.

The squirt gun was too much for Autymn Edwards, 11, to resist as she sprayed her neighbor.

“Someone just sprayed me!” that neighbor, Irene Prescott, complained.

“Well, you sprayed us!” Autymn said.

The fifth-graders made peace quickly.

“OK, fine,” Irene, 11, said.

The girls moved on to the next table for another hands-on experiment on erosion.

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