From Bayside to Oceanside

Science teachers explore ecosystems on Virginia’s Eastern Shore

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.  

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