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Opening Doors & Minds

By Tom Richardson
A plastic bowl contains Atlantic silversides gathered at the edge of Buzzards Bay.

I’m fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time outdoors, particularly on the waters of Buzzards Bay near my home. So, I often take it for granted that all people who live on the coast are as familiar with the wonder and beauty of the marine world.

The students are briefed on marine producers and consumers before heading to the water.

Sadly, that’s hardly the case, especially for children who grow up in urban areas where opportunities for exploring the outdoors are limited. In the city of New Bedford, the Buzzards Bay Coalition and Sea Lab have partnered for the last 10+ years in a program that gets elementary school kids out of the classroom and onto the shores of the bay to learn about the watery world that laps at their doorstep. As Stuart Downie, the BBC’s Vice President of Outdoor Exploration, explains, it’s a “dirt under the fingernails” type of experience, a chance for curious young students to immerse themselves in a very different type of environment, that in the most recent four years has been funded by a NOAA Bay Watershed Education and Training grant.

Stuart Downie of the Buzzards Bay Coalition throws a castnet from a pier on New Bedford's outer harbor.

I tagged along with Downie and his team on a windy December morning when a group of 5th graders from the Jacobs Elementary School arrived at the Sea Lab facility near Fort Taber, about a mile south of downtown New Bedford and a short walk from the Buzzards Bay shoreline. Founded in 1968, Sea Lab is a marine and aquatic environmental studies program funded through the New Bedford Public Schools for the perpetuation of advanced and timely science. Its summer programs give city kids a leg up in the study of life sciences, as well as robotics, sailing, nautical design, and more. That’s especially important in New Bedford, where students from the public school system routinely score below the state average in all subject areas, including science.

Curious students gather to see what was found in one of the nets.

On this day, the kids gathered for a quick classroom briefing on marine producers and consumers before heading down to the bay, where Downie and fellow instructors Colette Tweeddale and Laura Lamar deployed cast nets to see what sort of sealife could be dredged from the roiled waters. Despite the chilly conditions, the kids were super excited, especially when it came to bringing in the net.

The first few hauls contained seemingly unexciting samples of sea lettuce, Irish moss, and deadman’s fingers (all types of algae), yet the students were keenly interested. The instructors helped the budding biologists ID the various types of “producer” plants and record the information in their field notebooks. (During warmer months, all sorts of creatures are captured in the nets.)

The fourth net toss produced a surprising catch (at least to me)—a lone Atlantic Silverside, a small finfish most would call a “minnow,” which the kids went wild over. Tweeddale placed the small fish in a plastic bowl for closer observation, explaining that silversides subsisted on “producer” organisms such as algae and plankton, but also provided an important food source for larger fish such as sea bass, bluefish, striped bass, and flounder. Subsequent net tosses in the same area yielded even more silversides until a small school had been assembled.

It was rewarding to see how happy and energized the kids became once they were “in the field,” despite the uncomfortable conditions. I was reminded of how the best teaching moments occur outdoors and through physical engagement with the subject. Clearly, there is no lack of interest among these students—just a lack of opportunity.

Thanks to the collaborative programs held by the BBC and Sea Lab, some of the roadblocks to in-the-field learning and exposure to nature are being removed. Of course, not all of the students will grow up to become marine biologists or environmental activists, but the hope is that all of them will take home a new appreciation of the marine world, its interconnections with their home city, and become better stewards of the bay.

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