ARLINGTON -- They looked like Hershey's Kisses misshapen from being on a hot car dashboard.
But the contents of the foil wrappings caused some scrunched faces among a dozen Chinese students gathered in a room at the First United Methodist Church of Arlington last week.
Their assignment in a makeshift lab -- part of a whirlwind education and culture tour of the United States -- was to dissect owl pellets and use bone charts to determine what the birds of prey had eaten.
It's a task most American students undertake by the end of elementary school, before moving on to dissecting animals.
It's foreign to most Chinese students.
"That's nasty," said Zhang Lingxi, 15, as she began poking at the furry mass with a stick to break it apart.
She and her 48 classmates, who were divided among several rooms and projects in the church, came from public and private schools in the city of Chengdu to spend 31 days immersing themselves in American language, education and culture. Many hope to attend college in the U.S.
The longest leg of the trip -- 18 days -- is based in Arlington, where the students are staying with host families and studying literature, Texas and Native American folklore, math and science. They also are touring the University of Texas at Arlington and its planetarium, the Fort Worth Stockyards and the north Arlington dinosaur dig known as the Arlington Archosaur Site.
And dissecting "hoot poops."
Which is not technically accurate. Unlike most other birds, which have the more familiar top-to-bottom digestive systems, owls regurgitate their digested meals, and in concise packages. Those facts alone might ease the gag reflex for some.
Regardless, Kate Ross, an Arlington teacher who organized the Arlington portion of the trip, said she and other educators believed the dissection lesson would deliver the best hands-on opportunity for scientific sleuthing.
"It's something that occurs in nature, and it's one way we can find clues," said Ross, who ordered the sanitized pellets online. "It allows them to be scientific detectives, and they don't have to have a complete knowledge of English to be able to determine what it is."
Based on Wednesday's specimens, the owls' recent lunch menu was limited to small rodents.
"Oh, now see this?" Michael Pflug, a Garland school district math and science teacher who is assisting with the project, asked enthusiastically. He called attention to several ones that a student had picked from a pellet -- a mouse's tibia, fibula and femur leg bones along with a hip joint, all intact.
"You're not going to find that a lot," Pflug said.
Zhang Yunchen, 15, was starting to get into the assignment. "It's interesting. Mysterious," she said. "I can find something that I've never seen before."
In other rooms, students were making up folk tales and writing constitutions for their own mythical countries.
Of all the activities thus far, Jiang Feng Yu most enjoyed the students' meeting with Mayor Robert Cluck and hearing his observations on "our lives, goals and dreams."
"I told him I wanted to be an ambassador," Feng Yu said. "But he said he's a doctor and not very good at politics."
Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641