Young scientists get their feet wet with project on the bay

Marine ecologist John Brawley (left photo) explains a fish ladder to middle school students from Bay Farm Montessori School in Duxbury. At right, Rikki Churchill, 12, measures salinity in seawater with a refractometer (detail at center). Marine ecologist John Brawley (left photo) explains a fish ladder to middle school students from Bay Farm Montessori School in Duxbury. At right, Rikki Churchill, 12, measures salinity in seawater with a refractometer (detail at center). (Photos By Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / January 31, 2010

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DUXBURY - A scrum of middle schoolers in parkas and knitted hats crowded the edge of Duxbury Bay recently, eager for their turn with a little black hand-held device. It was not a hot new communication device or a game with a minuscule screen: It was a refractometer, a metal and glass instrument good for measuring the amount of salt in the water.

The tweens took turns gathering small samples of cold bay water and watched the bend of light “refracting’’ off the device’s prism produce a reading of salinity.

Bay Farm Montessori School students were trolling the Duxbury shore line under a brilliant winter sun as part of a hands-on marine ecology course modeled on what scientists do. They will research bacterial water pollution, considering possible causes in specific waters, forming a narrow testable hypothesis, and doing repeated water sampling to test whether the data confirm the hypothesis - or send them back to the drawing board.

It’s heady stuff for a group not long out of elementary school. Testing for salinity “is a good way to demonstrate how water characteristics change over space and time,’’ said John Brawley, the marine ecologist and school trustee who led the wintry field trip.

The refractometer is one of the tools the sixth- and seventh-grade students will use in obtaining data on water quality from samples taken from the estuarial Bluefish River, which flows into the bay, and nearby Island Creek. When the weather warms up, students will board the boats of the program’s partner, Duxbury Bay Maritime School, to sample deeper waters. Among the other tools of the marine ecologist trade, water temperature data loggers will be staked into stream beds to give continual readings from key points.

Once the waters warm up in the spring, samples will be collected and sent to a lab to measure bacteria levels and also determine the bacteria’s source from DNA analysis. In addition to exploring the causes of bacteria - counts are high enough to ban aquaculture from the mouth of the Bluefish - students will collect data on the factors that affect the success of a fish ladder on Island Creek.

The idea of learning science by mimicking what scientists do in the field makes sense to Bay Farm’s middle-school teachers Tina Booth and Meaghan Hathaway.

“They’ll run into problems, then work to solve them,’’ Booth said. The course will also provide teachable moments in other subjects, she said. “When they start averaging their readings,’’ Booth said, “you need to bring in the math piece.’’

Bay Farm students got their feet wet learning to sail last fall at Duxbury Bay Maritime and were quick to get on board with the ecology course.

What turned on seventh-grader John Wilson of Pembroke about the course? “Basically, all of it,’’ he said.

He demonstrated his coastal waters acumen by pointing to the snow line on the banks of the Bluefish. The line showed how high the previous high tide had reached, he said in response to Brawley’s query.

Bay Farm trustee Hauke Kite-Powell volunteered his time with Brawley to design the course and write a proposal to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s “Sea Grant Program,’’ which netted $12,000 to cover costs such as the lab testing. The grant holder is Duxbury Bay Maritime, which provides a base, boats, and a lab site for the course, and has been working to develop a marine ecology education program at its new facility overlooking the bay.

A research specialist at Woods Hole, Kite-Powell said the course’s goal “is to make the kids think of themselves as important stewards of the resource.’’

Over the next few weeks, the students will read up on bacterial water pollution, develop a list of possible pollution sources, and begin regular testing in March when waters warm and bacteria grow.

Lab results help guide their next steps: Is the bacteria source human, or from deer, pets, ducks, or geese?

The results may suggest ways to attack the problem, or pose new challenges. Do bacteria counts at the Island Creek fish ladder affect the seasonal migration of the bay’s herring and smelt?

Students will write their research reports in June and present their findings publicly at the school. “We want to design a way to make results useful for the town’s managers,’’ Kite-Powell said.

While bettering society is one of the values of the Montessori school’s approach to education, “learning by doing’’ activities have the practical value of making school more interesting. In accord with that philosophy, the new marine ecology course will also include building a small wooden boat at the Jones River Landing Environmental Heritage Center.

Both the hands-on ecology and the boat-building “motivate the more theoretical studies. They make the kids much more receptive to the course work,’’ Kite-Powell said.

The course’s designers also said they intend to make the curriculum available to other schools. Getting your feet wet, they said, leads to valuable lessons in a coastal region where life has always been about the water.

Robert Knox can be reached at