Brunswick students combine marine research, service learning

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BRUNSWICK — Students at Brunswick High School are getting boots on the ground when it comes to learning about Brunswick’s coastal marine ecosystem.

And those boots are expensive.

With the help of a $30,000 grant from the University of Maine’s Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture Network and $5,000 from the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, two high school teachers acquired the equipment and resources – notably, 75 pairs of pricey Muck Boots – to pioneer hands-on marine science research and service learning in Casco Bay.

The classes this fall will study the predation of green crabs on soft-shell clams. One of the teachers has hopes of expanding access and programming around the history and science of Maine’s coastline.

Rick Wilson, director of service learning, is teaching a course that will work in tandem with science teacher Andrew McCullough’s marine science elective: using nets and wooden boxes, Wilson’s class will study and implement the techniques clammers use to prevent predation by invasive crabs. McCullogh’s class will also identify and study the species captured by the traps.

Wilson’s students took to the mud for the first time Thursday; over the course of the semester, they will place nets and boxes on Mariquoit Bay and Heel’s Eddy Farm, visit local scientist Darcie Couture’s laboratory, and meet with prominent clam researcher Brian Beal. Wilson said the class will design and build “Beal boxes” made of wood and netting to fend off crabs.

Sabina Smith, 17, is a senior who said she enrolled in Wilson’s class because she was interested in the service aspect of the course. But she soon became interested in the subject of Maine’s coastal life.

“It really does have a big significance to us, to this town, that I don’t think was stressed when I was younger,” Smith said Tuesday. Smith and Wilson hope that clams seeded by this year’s class will make it possible for elementary school students to study the mature clams next year.

“Hopefully in the future,” Smith said, “(the school) can make greater strides to work together and help out our ecosystem.”

Wilson agreed. “A sense of place, a sense of self: (those) are the two driving pieces of the course,” he said.

In a presentation during at the Sept. 14 School Board meeting, Wilson explained that aquaculture is the third-fastest growing segment of Maine’s economy, and, as such, the grant is not only providing valuable research opportunities for students, but advancing education about Maine’s coastal heritage.

During his presentation, he relayed a piece of trivia that Harbormaster Dan Devereaux brought to his attention: Brunswick’s town seal includes the image of a shellfish harvester in its lower left-hand corner. Devereaux helped write the SEANET grant alongside Tideland Coalition’s Susan Olcott, and has lectured in Wilson’s class this semester.

Because of the program’s two-pronged approach to science and coastal heritage, McCullough told the School Board, “we’re just scratching the surface of where this can go.”

Piggybacking off that idea, Wilson said in an interview Tuesday that the program is a kind of “incubator” for future educational opportunities.

In the future, he wants to find a centralized facility to store equipment and materials, because “logistically, it’s a crazy undertaking.” Simply finding a place to store and care for the 75 pairs of muck boots required extensive planning, he said. 

At one point, Wilson thought that place might be at 946 Mere Point Road, a property the Town Council acquired in 2011 due to non-payment of taxes and considered making a public access site. Wilson wrote a letter to Councilor John Perreault in favor of retaining the property for an educational facility; the council ended up voting Monday to sell the property. 

But Perrault said that idea wasn’t the “end-all, be-all” of the program. 

Before the start of school, Wilson and McCullough traveled to the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education to study the technology they would use in their classes. The institute in Beals has worked with schools in the past to teach students about marine life, and the Brunswick teachers collected tips and ideas to bring home.

“I love Downeast,” Wilson said. “But it’s too bad we had to go four hours to wrap our heads around (the issue). It should be happening here.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Kyle Pepperman, left, and Colleen Haskell of the Downeast Institute, and Brunswick High School science teacher Andrew McCullough check on a 14-by-14-foot net that protects seed clams from green crabs at the institute in Beals.

Brunswick High School students in Rick Wilson’s service learning class wear Muck Boots bought with money from a recent science grant. The class will wear the boots to trek along Brunswick’s mud flats as they research green crab predation on soft-shell clam populations.

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Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.