Sturgis B-WET: Training Future Stewards of Our Fragile Cape Cod Environment (Summer 2012)

By Cindy Gallo, Lead Science Teacher, Sturgis East

Did you know that estuaries, those beautiful shoreline systems of meandering inlets where fresh and salt water meet, are considered the nurseries of the oceans where more than 2/3 of the fish and shellfish we eat spend a part of their lifecycle? Did you know that estuarine environments are as productive as rainforests and are a major sink for carbon? Have you ever wondered how a starfish can open a clam and extrude its stomach to get its meal? Or, how organisms have adapted to living in an environment where they are, on a daily basis, battered by waves, exposed to air as the tide recedes, and bathed in waters of a wide range of salinity?

Did you know that Cape Cod has a sole source aquifer (water supply) that is centered beneath the Massachusetts Military Reserve and flows, downhill, toward the surrounding waters in Buzzards and Cape Cod Bays?

Sturgis students learn these facts and more because of a program developed with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Bay-Watershed Education Training Program (NOAA B-WET). Three years ago, we won a competitive grant and were awarded approximately $75,000 from NOAA with matching funds of $25,000 from the William Sturgis Friends of Education Foundation to develop an educational model that would link classroom learning to field experience and help our students gain an appreciation for the complexity and values of estuaries and the watershed on the upper Cape.

The Sturgis B-WET program is designed to utilize estuaries as a natural laboratory to repeatedly expose all students to the challenges and rewards of studying the environment and understanding it as the interaction of multiple earth systems. Students in all four years of high school study the structure and dynamics of the estuarine system at Town Neck Beach in Sandwich, MA by integrating hands on field experiences with classroom studies. With estuaries as a recurring focus, Sturgis meets the educational standards of Massachusetts and the International Baccalaureate in the context of this natural system. Traditionally, high school science courses are presented as separate disciplines; Sturgis’ B-WET program allows us to cross those artificial classroom barriers and perceive nature as a whole. Think of each scientific discipline as but one section of Mother Nature’s orchestra; True appreciation for and understanding of nature can only come when these disciplines of science are understood as a symphony of rhythms and cycles that are inter-connected. In the Sturgis B-WET program, students progress through each science course, accumulating experiential knowledge of the estuarine environment, identifying connections between the different science disciplines and their applications to understanding the complexity of natural systems. This integrated science approach provides students a complexity of learning that allows for a deeper understanding of the nature of science, as well as the estuary and the watershed that feeds into it.

In grade 9, Sturgis students learn the basic structure of the estuarine system and explore the biology of the environment. They see, in real life in the field, many of the concepts they learned about in the classroom such as species adaptations, habitats and niches, food webs, competition and predation. They also observe the impact humans have on the environment as they study differences in the fauna at the base of the boardwalk bridge and at an outflow pipe in the upper marsh.

Grade 10 students explore the chemistry and physics of the estuary, making connections to their semester courses in those subjects. Emphasis is placed on the skills of data collection, using a variety of sampling instruments, and determining how we know our data is good data (accuracy and precision). Students sample water along a transect from the shore up into an inlet, identifying changes in water chemistry in different zones of the estuary.

Students in Grade 11 Science classes have an opportunity to conduct actual IB labs in the field. For example, a Biology student may study habitat biodiversity whereas a physics student may measure variations in current speed at different locations along an inlet. A chemistry student might determine if there are correlations between water characteristics such as dissolved oxygen concentration and pH, while an Environmental Systems student might evaluate the impact of the adjacent neighborhood on water quality.

In Senior year, all students participate in the “Group 4 Project” (so named because sciences are the fourth group in the IB hexagon). This is a collaborative activity in which students from each of the science disciplines work together in small groups to explore an aspect of the estuarine system. Each student is the expert in their field of study. They utilize the knowledge they have gathered over the previous 3 years of estuarine studies and field work to devise a single experiment that they work on collaboratively.

B-WET is not just for our students, though. Sturgis Science faculty has received training from scientists at Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research and Wellfleet Mass. Audubon.  Faculty from all science disciplines collaborate on every field expedition and have developed an appreciation of the flow of scientific knowledge between grade levels. This continuity further de-compartmentalizes science and is more efficient in sequencing the learning of scientific skills for our students. We teachers get to work as scientists alongside our students as they discover the wonders of estuaries.

Most importantly, Sturgis B-WET encourages students to learn to appreciate the importance of watersheds from ecological services and aesthetic value perspectives. By understanding the workings of an estuarine environment, students realize how vulnerable these ecosystems are and how they can be managed and preserved most effectively. Our students are our future. They are inheriting the stewardship of a fragile Cape environment already threatened by development, pollution from industry, boat traffic, invasive species and cultural eutrophication from septic effluent, fertilizers and airborne nutrients from fossil fuel use. Teaching our students the scientific complexity of the estuaries and watersheds will enable them to make sound decisions in their future roles as managers of our environment. Difficult management decisions that must weigh the importance of economics against preservation of the environment will be made by young people who have an understanding how interconnected the natural systems are and what is at stake.

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