Science teachers explore ecosystems on Virginia’s Eastern Shore
By Chris Patrick, science writer
On a sunny July morning, 14 high school and middle school science teachers wearing life vests, old sneakers, and sunglasses board two Carolina skiffs, the Oyster and the Coquina, and ride to a seagrass bed in the Pungoteague Creek.
It’s the first field day of the Virginia Coastal Ecosystems Field Course, a six-day exploration of Mid-Atlantic coastal ecosystems. Nearly every year, Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) educators affiliated with Virginia Sea Grant—Lisa Lawrence, Carol Hopper Brill and Celia Cackowski—lead this course to enrich teachers’ understandings of marine and environmental science, and give them fieldwork skills that they can relay to their students.
The course is held at the VIMS Eastern Shore Lab in Wachapreague, Virginia. Virginia’s Eastern Shore is sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, providing quick access to both. During the course, the teachers visit coastal ecosystems on the bayside and oceanside, including salt marshes, tidal creeks, mud flats, and barrier islands. Lawrence, Hopper Brill, and Cackowski know that most teachers can’t bring their students to the Eastern Shore, so their aim is to provide teachers with ecosystem investigation models that they can adapt to environments closer to their schools.
“The field course is an excellent program that engages educators in field experiences that most would not typically have access to,” says Tonya Felice, a science teacher at Chesterfield’s Manchester Middle School who attended this summer’s course. “Because of the field experience with VIMS, I am equipped with lessons, activities, and resources that will allow me to engage my students in ways like never before.”
When the motors go quiet at the seagrass bed in the Pungoteague, passengers on the two crowded boats suddenly erupt in a flurry of activity. The previous evening, the teachers learned how to take water quality measurements. Today, they’re enacting that lesson on the water, using chemical test kits to measure acidity, refractometers to measure salinity, Secchi disks to measure clarity, and probes to measure dissolved oxygen and temperature.
After the water quality testing, Victoria Hill, a researcher from Old Dominion University, who accompanied the teachers on their outing, talks about her research looking at the effects of climate change on seagrass. Hill is one of three scientists who visited the teachers throughout the week to share their work; VIMS graduate student Bianca Santos and VIMS post-doc Wes Hudson also presented their science.
In addition to field experience and guest scientist lectures, participating teachers receive a thumb drive and binder filled with laboratory and field activity outlines that they can use in their own classrooms. But most took more than that. Teachers collected beach treasures—empty whelk shells, fish skeletons, and horseshoe crab exoskeletons—on daily excursions, and brought these back to their classrooms to spark curiosity in their students.
The teachers also returned to their schools with a new network of professional allies from Virginian schools, VIMS, and VASG. “The synergy between participating teachers and course instructors is always special. Both bring experience, ideas and creativity to the mix,” says Carol Hopper Brill, a course organizer and instructor, and a VIMS educator affiliated with Virginia Sea Grant.
This year’s class of teachers took that synergy one step further. Many were inspired by the water quality testing activity, which continued throughout the week at different sites. When the course was over, they made a plan to have every teacher and their students test the water quality in their area and add it to a Google Doc shared between all teachers and students to give students a fuller picture of water quality across Virginia.
“Real world data allows for the students to practice analyzing and making conclusions based on the data,” says Felice. “We want to make the students’ watershed experiences more meaningful.”
This year’s class of teachers is the first to plan an activity together outside of the workshop. Some were also inspired to integrate pieces of the course in their individual lesson plans. Jane Selden, a biology teacher at John Randolph Tucker High School in Richmond, was especially encouraged by daytrips to two barrier islands off Virginia’s Atlantic Coast: Parramore Island and Cedar Island.
Barrier islands are long, skinny offshore sand deposits that parallel the coastline, protecting it from storm damage and serving as habitat for a variety of wildlife. To visit Parramore Island, the Commonwealth’s largest natural area preserve, the teachers had to cover as much skin as possible to protect themselves from the island’s copious insects, donning long pants and long sleeve shirts in temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Through swarms of mosquitoes, the teachers learned about barrier islands’ vulnerability to climate change, as rising sea levels contribute to shoreline erosion and tree die-offs. Seldon now plans to teach her students about barrier islands during a Chesapeake Bay-focused ecology unit.
“At age 69, you’d think I knew everything about the Chesapeake Bay,” Selden says. “But I didn’t even know we had barrier islands in Virginia. I’ll be including a lot about them in class.”