Science lessons head out to the local environment

Sally Kuhn
Daily News staff

"It's raining spazzing fish," said one seventh-grader as he looked at minnows jumping around in a plastic glass on Friday.

He and five other students from Sue Brown's class at Nock Middle School were scooping minnows and water from a bucket, counting the fish and then pouring them into another bucket.

They called out the number of minnows to April Ridlin, an educational staff worker from the Massachusetts Audubon Society who recorded the figures.

These seventh-graders were blazing a trail last week. They were the first students to study the fish population at the Parker River Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island.

"They got a National Wildlife Refuge land use permit to work here," said Ridlin. "It's a big deal."

Two other groups from Brown's class were collecting data near the bird observation tower that day. Some were bird watching. Others were studying plants.

Students from throughout the region are helping with studies of the salt marshes in the area, enriching both science and their educations. Not only were these students learning outside the classroom, they were working with real scientists to collect data for a real study.

The Massachusetts Audubon Society and the refuge are studying a new refuge site, said Massachusetts Audubon North's Elizabeth Duff.

The project, she said, is to restore the refuge's North Pool area to a salt marsh ecosystem. The refuge is considering opening the tide gate to let in the salt water.

Currently, it is a fresh-water ecosystem, with fresh-water plants like phragmites and loosestrife and very few birds.

This season, Duff said, baseline data will be collected for the project, with help from students of Newburyport and Newbury.

Brown's seventh-graders will be coming back to the refuge Tuesday and Wednesday. Other seventh-grade sections from Newburyport will be studying various sections of the North Pool area. Sixth-graders from Newbury Elementary School will collect data at the refuge next week.

The project connecting children with scientists conducting research isn't the only one of its kind for the Newburyport schools, said science teacher John Halloran. Last week, he and a group of eighth-graders were collecting data at the Audubon property at Joppa Flats.

Eighth-graders will also be working with the Marine Biological Lab at Woods Hole on a multi-year study of green crabs. Students will study the crabs in the tidal creeks in Plum Island.

The middle school, Halloran said, has always encouraged using the community as a place of study. Because the school has block scheduling -- large amounts of class time in "blocks" -- Brown is able arrange the schedule to take whole days for the project.

Duff said students from Rowley, Salisbury, Newbury and Newburyport are doing similar projects. Salisbury elementary students will study a new site on Old County Road that is scheduled for restoration. Most of the Salisbury sixth-graders are studying the area of Town Creek along the Boston and Maine railroad bed in Salisbury. Last week, they sketched and mapped the area. This week, they return to categorize and study any plants and animals they see.

On Nov. 30, all the students involved in the projects will get together at the Coastal Science Conference, to be held at Nock Middle School.

Friday, six Nock students were bird watching on top of the tower overlooking Hellcat Swamp. Pairs looking through binoculars faced looked north and south and Plum Island sound. Their job, to record on a data sheet what birds they saw, what the birds were doing near or on what vegetation.

"Why are they putting their wings up?" teacher Shawn Flaherty asked Katie Henderson and Megan Bailey after they spotted a double crested cormorant. Jeff Baran and Gerard Kennedy reported seeing a snowy egret, a double breasted cormorant and a herring gull.

Another group, under the direction of Halloran, was recording plants in a transect, a straight line out in the marsh. A section had been marked off with a tape measure. At every meter, students determined what plants were present and what was healthy. Health is measured by height.

Danielle Green and Abby Adsit pointed out an unknown vine curling around a stick. Halloran took a sample.

During the lunch break, the teachers discussed other bonuses to learning science in a project like this. One, noted Halloran, is that girls really liked it. Traditionally, he said, girls are turned off by science in the sixth grade.

"When I studied science," Flaherty said, "we didn't get to go outside."

"I had to wait until college to do a transect," said Ridlin, now 24. "Listening to a professor day after day gets boring."

Student Dan Gallagher liked the whole project. He liked coming down to the refuge.

Sean Green liked finding out how the plants interacted with each other, how one plant competes with another, he said, referring to the phragmites who were causing the demise of the cattails.

"A flock of birds few about 10 feet off the ground," said Ryan Galer. It felt like they were going to "take off our heads," he said.

The day before, the seventh-graders studied the salinity of the water in deep, shallow and medium wells.

"We discovered in the shallow wells, there was no water because the phragmites had taken it all," said Brooke Steeves.