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Field course equips teachers to bring coastal science into their classrooms 

Teachers dig in a mudflat
Teachers dig in a mudflat for creatures living in the sediment at Hurley’s Reef on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. (Photo: Celia Cackowski/Virginia Institute of Marine Science Marine Advisory Program)

Article by: Madeleine Jepsen, Virginia Sea Grant Staff Writer

In the shallow waters along Virginia’s Eastern Shore, seagrass leaves sway in the tides of the coastal bays. Peering over the edge of a boat, you can see small killifish and young blue crabs darting in between the plants. If you look closely at the seagrass, you can see a fuzzy coating of algae growing on the leaves, and small snails grazing on the algae as a tasty snack. At the center of this bustling scene, the eelgrass produces oxygen through photosynthesis, and its roots hold down the mucky bottom, clearing the water and giving a better view of the creatures living there.

Teachers might not be able to bring all their science students to see this vibrant ecosystem in person, but through the Teachers on the Estuary Field Course, they can bring coastal science back to their classrooms. The four-day field course gave a dozen middle and high-school teachers the chance to work on coastal research and equipped them with hands-on classroom activities focused on the same habitats they explored.

“It was re-energizing to get back in the field and remember, 'Oh yeah, this is why I want to teach this. This is why this matters,’” said Kathryn Bender, a high school science teacher from Charlottesville who participated in the workshop.

The teachers started off each day exploring a different habitat. On the seaside, the group explored an oyster reef and mudflat, where they dug for worms and other invertebrates hiding in the mud. They also visited Cedar Island, a barrier island where shorebirds nest on the beaches, and dragged a handheld seine net through the shallow waters to catch small fish near the island.

The plants, fish and birds of Virginia’s coast can illustrate abstract concepts like food webs for students. Virginia students will learn biology, chemistry and physics concepts at certain grade levels, but there’s no such standard for marine science.

Even so, teachers can still use coastal examples to explain required concepts to students. The way sea creatures adapt to saltwater can bring to life concepts like osmoregulation, or the balance between water and salt concentrations in organisms.

“A lot of the pictures I take during the field course end up in some of my lectures and my activities. They do a lot of really good hands-on activities that are really low-cost, so they're not hard for a teacher to replicate in their classroom,” said Kathy Richardson, who teaches high school biology and marine ecology in Louisa.

Translating these field experiences into classroom-friendly lessons can be a challenge. During the workshop, teachers tried out pre-made lesson plans related to that morning’s field trips.

After exploring the sea grass meadows, teachers tried out a lesson plan about the algae growing on the blades of seagrass, modeled by popsicle sticks covered in playdough. After spending a morning digging for worms and clams on a coastal mudflat, the teachers tried out a lesson about the different sizes of sediment that combine to make the muddy texture — represented by dried beans and grains of rice.

“One year, they did a lesson plan about pollinators, and they used cheese balls [placed] on a piece of construction paper flower,” Richardson said. “It was covered in that orange powder and it was such a good visual for pollinators.”

Many of the lesson plans shared during the teacher workshops were developed through the Virginia Science & Educators Alliance (VA SEA), a program where graduate students in the sciences work with education specialists to create classroom-friendly activities based on their research.

The same marine education specialists who lead the Teachers on the Estuary workshop — the Virginia Institute of Marine Science Marine Advisory Program and the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve — also lead the VA SEA program each year. These programs help link cutting-edge research and coastal science with Virginia’s classrooms, allowing students to investigate the same questions as professional scientists.

During the workshop, teachers also designed a type of science lesson called a Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE) that they can complete with their students this year. Research shows that project-based learning like MWEEs engages K-12 students in real-world issues and teaches them collaboration and critical-thinking skills, while still meeting curriculum standards. Although MWEE lessons have a clear-cut format — outdoor investigation, data analysis, sharing results, and creating an action plan based on the findings — the subject matter can be tailored to focus on local issues.

Field experiences like collecting plankton from the water, give teachers experience with the scientific sampling methods they can use with their students during a MWEE— even if the class collects plankton from a pond, rather than the ocean.

“The workshop modeled for them how they would have their students do the exact same thing: Ask an investigative question, collect the data, come up with a claim from that data and then determine if there is something we can do to improve the situation,” Marine Education Program Leader Lisa Lawrence said.

By training teachers to lead outdoor investigations and incorporate coastal science into their classroom activities, workshops like Teachers on the Estuary have a multiplier effect. “Each teacher trained impacts approximately 26 students. The VA SEA lesson plan database contains more than 55 classroom-ready lesson plans that have been downloaded thousands of times and demonstrated during teacher workshops,“ shares Celia Cackowski, Marine Education Specialist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Although the students might not see the coastal seagrass meadows for themselves, they can still learn about Virginia’s coast and participate in outdoor science investigations much closer to home. The students might not dig for snails on a mudflat, but they can still learn about the sediment and the kinds of life it supports.

“They’re still separating out the sizes of sand and sediment and weighing them, and I thought that'd be a neat thing to do before I actually do a sand lab with my students,” Richardson, the Louisa teacher, said. “After that, they might be able to see the actual sand grains a little differently than just a bunch of pretty colors and shapes.”