The students in Eric Sabo's environmental sciences class at Rockport High School are discovering that when it comes to real-world science, things don't always go as planned.
Sabo and his class of 18 biology students are participating in a federally funded experiment designed to test whether underwater eelgrass grows better when fertilized by fish waste or a commercial compound.
To accomplish this, the class has two tanks: one treated with Miracle-Gro fertilizer and the other with fresh fish waste pumped in from a tank filled with 2-year-old winter flounder.
But algae, the bane of any aquarium manager, has so overrun both 30-gallon eelgrass tanks that what is normally a lush, flowering marine plant is dying off pretty much after it germinates.
''You can find a few blades if you look hard, but it's not growing very well at all," said senior Molly Clay, 18, as she and her partner, Allie Saville, 18, ran a test to measure the chemistry of the murky water in each tank.
As Clay and Saville busied themselves testing the water for levels of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, as well as for temperature, across the room Karyn Mountain, 16, and her lab partner, Christina Walsh, 17, were trying to corral the skittish winter flounder to weigh and measure them.
''They are more than a little slimy," said Mountain, as she gamely eased one fish out of a net and into a waiting tray to take its vitals.
The project is an outgrowth of the aquaculture courses offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sea Grant program and the GloucesterMaritime Heritage Center, which share space on Gloucester's waterfront.
''Eelgrass is very important to a coastal environment because it provides an important habitat for a variety of commercially important species, including stripers, lobsters, and flounder," said Brandy Moran, who works for MIT's Sea Grant program and helped design the classroom experiment.
''Our goal is to develop a program in which Massachusetts science teachers instruct their students on how to grow eelgrass from seed in tanks in their classroom. Then the eelgrass seedlings will be replanted in Massachusetts waters as part of a statewide eelgrass monitoring and restoration program."
In addition to financial support from the Maritime Heritage Center and MIT, Moran has received funding from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management to develop a pilot program in Rockport at both the high school and middle school as well as at Essex Agriculture Institute in Danvers, Swampscott Middle School, Dedham High School, Odyssey High School in Boston, and Wellesley's Dana Hall.
What Moran didn't count on is that algae would so quickly gain a foothold in the eelgrass tanks and overwhelm the seedlings.
''There are major challenges to growing eelgrass, so we expected that we were going to have to experiment with different growing conditions," Moran said. ''In fact, the kids have been very creative in coming up with some good ideas on how to combat the algae. Now that we are four months into the project, each of the classrooms is going in a slightly different direction."
The first problem, Sabo said, was that ''the ambient, 70-degree temperature of the classroom heated the water to a level that was uncomfortable for the fish. The fish became infected with a parasite, which in nature doesn't kill them since it only grows when their water is warm. In the ocean, these fish would have sought deeper, cooler temperatures."
After a month, Sabo sent the sick fish back for medical treatment in Moran's lab while he waited for a water chiller to arrive.
In the meantime, the eelgrass seedlings were germinating, but brown algae was killing them before they grew more than an inch or two tall.
''Our best guess is the algae is out-competing the eelgrass for the nutrients in the water so that eelgrass is dying as soon as it uses up the food in the seed," Sabo said.
It's all been a good lesson in basic evolutionary science, Moran said.
Over in Ann Witzig's marine biology classroom at Essex Agriculture Institute, her eleventh-graders have been experimenting with a stronger light source for their tanks after one student, Sam Murray, observed that more light seems to make a difference for the plants in his home fish tank.
''We're also about to try a wave-maker, because we've been doing some research that suggests movement in the tank might make it harder for the algae to attach to the eelgrass," Witzig said.
Before her students set up their tanks, Witzig said, she took them on a snorkeling trip to see firsthand how eelgrass grows off Niles Beach in Gloucester.
''For us, this has already been a great hands-on science lesson, because the kids have been introduced to a world they never knew existed," Witzig said.
At Swampscott Middle School, seventh-grade science teacher Bill Andrake said the algae growth in his classroom tanks sent him to his doctoral thesis to look up something he wrote years ago about treatments for algae.
''Right now I have the students treating the tanks with germanium dioxide, which Brandy ordered for us," Andrake said.
Moran is hopeful that eventually the students and their teachers will come up with a system that allows the eelgrass to prosper. She would like to expand the project into more classrooms next year.
''No matter what, the guys over at Coastal Zone Management are very interested in the results so far," Moran said. ''The kids are writing up their data, which will be added to what [Coastal Zone Management is] doing to restore eelgrass along the Massachusetts coast."
Clay, the Rockport senior, said she found it exciting to be part of a real-world experiment.
''Usually in the classroom you're listening to lectures," said Clay, who is considering a career in science.
Her classmate Christina Walsh readily admitted that her up-close and personal experience with winter flounder and eelgrass will last her a lifetime. ''I'm more interested in a career in screenwriting than science, but who knows, maybe I'll do a film about flounder some day," she said.
Moran said even if students can't get eelgrass to grow reliably, the experiment will be a success.
''Our overall goal is to create stewards of the coastal environment, and these students are well on their way to a new appreciation of their world," Moran said.
Caroline Louise Cole can be reached at email@example.com.