Every year, students from Dunloggin Middle School visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Philip Merrill Environmental Education Center in Annapolis to explore the area’s marine populations and in particular, the local oyster population. In 2012, students were disappointed after trawling for oysters and coming up with loads of empty shells, but only a handful of live oysters. While the school’s science teachers could have ignored the problem and hoped for a better outcome the following year, they chose to act, they chose to turn disappointment into opportunity.
Partnering with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the school created an oyster gardening project that offered a long-term hands-on science project for students to participate in. Teachers selected students with interests in marine biology to create oyster rearing cages and make twice-monthly trips to the local marina to clean and care for their small-scale hatchery. By year’s end, the students released 750 oysters into the bay and learned much more than teachers could have imagined.
In addition to the hands-on experience in marine biology, students learned citizenship, volunteerism, environmental advocacy and an appreciation for the fragile balance that their local ecosystems exist in.
“This got the kids involved in their community, helped them solve a community problem and taught them environmentally safe practices,” Blue said. “They’ve developed citizenship skills. This is exactly what we wanted to do. What these kids did is special.”
The students who took part in the oyster-raising project, which Blue said he hopes continues in coming years, were picked by Blue and Kidwell for their interest in marine biology. Through the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s oyster gardening project, the students started working last fall. They built four oyster cages that became home to spat (baby oysters) provided by Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery in Cambridge, then put those cages in the waters off the Kentmorr Marina near the Bay Bridge in Stevensville.
Once every two weeks throughout the year, a different student and his or her family traveled to Stevensville to clean and monitor the cages, keeping track of the oysters’ progress.
“This was the kids’ project through and through,” Blue said. “It was a long-term project they took responsibility for, and we had such great support from so many people.”
Those people include those at Kentmoor, who provided the docking space for the cages, the representatives of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Don Merritt at the oyster hatchery and Claude Poudrier, a Montreal-based environmental educator with the Alcoa Foundation, who provided Blue and Kidwell with a community problem-solving curriculum.
Throughout the year, students not only traveled to the Kentmoor docks, but to the oyster hatchery, where they learned where the spat originally came from. In class, they learned about the importance of oysters to the health of the bay.
“They filter the bay’s nutrients,” said eighth-grader Natalie Varela, 14. “They’re important. Since the bay is really polluted, the oysters are dying. We didn’t realize how important they were and how things were getting worse. We just wanted to make it better.”
A school year is a long time to dedicate to a project, Kidwell said, and the students got attached to the oysters. When the group of 10 took the oysters out into the water on a sunny late May day, Blue said he and Kidwell asked the students to give the oysters a farewell message before depositing them in an oyster sanctuary reef outside the mouth of the Severn River.
“It was almost a sad occasion,” he said. “Here’s something you take care of and raise for a year, and then you have to release them.”
Sad, but funny, Kidwell said.
“They told their oysters, ‘go to college,’ ‘make sure you call your parents,’ ” Kidwell said. “They were giving the goodbyes you would give to a child.”
It’s understandable, Natalie said. The students and their families did care for the oysters in good and bad weather and had spent hours learning about them.
“These were our babies,” she said. “They’re our little guys. But it’s cool because we made a difference. We put something good back into the bay.”