Yarmouth students keep focus on clams (of course)

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YARMOUTH — When they’re done taking a class students typically move on from the associated assignments and projects.

Five Yarmouth High School sophomores, however, are still working on a project they started three years ago in seventh grade.

“At the start of the project it seemed small,” Connor Senger said. “We’ve turned it into something much bigger.”

Senger and his peers, Duncan Birkbeck, Grady Welsh, Clementine Blaschke and Ben Cox-Faxon, have been working on ways to protect softshell clams from invasive species. The project is overseen by Morgan Cuthbert, the seventh-grade math and science teacher at Yarmouth Middle School.

The project started as an independent study with 15 students involved. The five sophomores who have continued with it  have won two competitions, which have resulted in prizes totaling almost $50,000.

Most recently, the group won the first round of the Lexus Eco Challenge by Scholastic, which came with a $10,000 prize split between the group members and the school. They were one of eight high school teams in the country to win and are now preparing to compete in the second round.

While in seventh grade, the group won the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest, for which Yarmouth Middle School received $35,000.

The group said they started the project because they wanted to protect clams from being destroyed by European green crabs.

“Naturally with Yarmouth and the Clam Festival, we wanted to focus on clams,” Birkbeck said.

Over the past three years, the group has looked to various community members, clammers and fishermen, as well as Brian Beal of the Downeast Institute, as resources.

“Most of the time the answer is right in front of you when you thought it’d be really hard,” Birkbeck said. “People in the community are very accessible and willing to help.”

Cuthbert said he’s happy to see the students engaging in a different way of learning.

“It’s community-based learning that you don’t always see in a typical classroom,” he said. “It’s been great to see this kind of learning.”

Although he’s no longer their teacher, Cuthbert still oversees the group. He said the students do most of the work, though, and maintain the project through the summer and on weekends.

The group members agreed with Cuthbert that the project has shown them a new way of learning.

“Instead of doing the same thing that’s been done in every science classroom, we’re doing something new,” Welsh said. “We’re pioneering this.”

In April 2016, the group received a grant of almost $12,000 from the Yarmouth Education Foundation, which has allowed them to build an upweller at the Yarmouth Town Landing and purchase 250,000 clams.

“In a classroom you obviously don’t put your hand in an upweller, pull out a silo, and come face-to-face with a juvenile clam,” Birkbeck said.

Cox-Faxon said he’s enjoyed doing work that helps protect the clams, which in turn will help the clamming industry.

“You’re working towards a goal much bigger than a grade you’re going to get,” he said. “You’re working for your community.”

The work being done by the sophomores is also benefiting their younger peers. Cuthbert said the project is now part of his seventh-grade curriculum.

“Part of the reason I think the (foundation) grant went through is because it’ll have an impact on the greater school system,” he said.

The sophomores said they hope younger students are interested in helping with, and eventually continuing, their work.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working with leaders in our community, but we haven’t really thought about how we’ve become leaders,” Cox-Faxon said. “I hope this inspires younger students.”

The clams, of which approximately 125,000 remain, are winterizing at the Chebeague Island Ferry Terminal. Cuthbert said the clams have grown from little “specks” this past summer to a couple of centimeters in size.

Building the upweller and winterizing the clams, which involves keeping them underwater in a suspended bag, has required the students to go through permitting processes with the town.

In addition to learning how to work with local officials and community members, Birkbeck said he and the group have learned “how to effectively find an answer.”

“Mr. Cuthbert taught us the scientific method so we can find things out ourselves,” he said.

The students said what the project and Cuthbert have taught them are lessons that will guide their lives and future careers.

“Mr. Cuthbert has taught us a love of science, for sure,” Welsh said.

Cuthbert said he’s happy to have inspired this passion for science and discovery. He said he’s proud not only of the competitions the students have won, but of their reason for doing the project.

“These guys would have done the work without the challenges,” Cuthbert said. “What they’ve taken away and learned from this has been their greatest reward.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Yarmouth students, who began working on a shellfish nursery project in seventh grade, received a grant from the Yarmouth Education Foundation last year to build an upweller.

The goal of the project is to protect softshell clams from invasive species, such as the European Green Crab. The group of Yarmouth High School students has won almost $50,000 by entering the project in competitions.

Yarmouth High School sophomores Connor Senger, left, Ben Cox-Faxon, Clementine Blaschke, Grady Welsh, and Duncan Birkbeck have been working on the project to protect softshell clams for the past three years.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.