Intertidal: Learning about our coastal ecosystem starts early

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“Woah, are there lobsters in there?” Asked a student. “Are you coming to my class? Another asked.

These are the enthusiastic comments from students at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School (HBS) as I carried a lobster trap, a bucket full of bait bags and lobster tools, and a cooler with the live animals. down the hall with a volunteer student from Bowdoin College. As with many projects during the pandemic, this one suffered some delays as volunteers were unable to be in classrooms last year. But, the group of Bowdoin College students leading this effort and the teachers at HBS have been incredibly patient in making these classes a reality.

Lobsters are an iconic Maine animal, and for this reason it may seem like they’re familiar to a lot of people – and they are on some level. Each student immediately knew which animal we were going to talk about, and there was a lot of great knowledge existing in the groups. But, for a coastal community, I’m still amazed at how unfamiliar fishing and understanding marine ecosystems can be to people of all ages. The beauty of educating the younger generations is that it moves up the food chain both to other generations and as they grow up and develop their interests and continue their education.

The students’ eagerness to learn more about marine life makes the presentation of something like a trap and a few lobsters so rewarding. In the case of lobsters, it’s easy to relate a mysterious species to our own lives by talking about how we harvest them and also enjoy eating them. While the students were eager to learn more about the lobsters themselves, they were equally excited to learn how to fish them. They followed remarkably intricate details of the rules that apply to fishing, and there was great respect for why they exist.

The connection with the students of Bowdoin College was natural given the incredible resources and interest the school has in marine science. And, having a college student in your classroom is a lot more exciting than your mom. The students involved in the project are part of the Naturalists Club, a college club that seeks to encourage understanding of the local ecology and natural history that surrounds us in the large community of Brunswick and the coast of Maine. It gathered a large number of students interested in going out and learning more about the natural world.

Club students who were interested took a short training course on campus to review the parts of a trap, the parts of a lobster, and how to relate the lesson to the grade five science curriculum. Fifth-graders typically have a field trip to Thomas Point Beach in the spring to see horseshoe crabs congregating near the shore, so lobsters were a logical animal to choose to learn more about shellfish before this excursion. The hope is that some of Bowdoin’s students can attend this excursion to help deepen the bond between the two creatures. There is also interest in teaching about other species in the future, especially those that students can relate to human impacts, something they are studying this year.

The other lesson that emerges from this experience, aside from the opportunity to educate people of all ages about fishing and the marine environment, is that there is always something new to learn as well. For example, I had to research if lobsters use stigmas to breathe in the same way that insects breathe through these tiny holes in their shells. Now I know it’s not, but I’ve learned a lot about stigma. If all goes well, the rest of the fifth grade classes will learn about lobsters this week and perhaps share that knowledge with other members of the community.


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