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In The News
Students make waves
(September 21, 2011) - One summer afternoon on a pier in the Poquoson River, 10 students collect data with instruments of all shapes and sizes. They're checking water salinity and phosphate and nitrate levels. Like the fiddler crabs they've studied, the students move along the edge of the water quickly, with purpose. As each student collects information, another student records the information in a field notebook.
This is not the work of marine biology students at a local college or university. They're not even in high school. Each student is a Newport News Public Schools seventh-grader. The students are participating in a week-long Kayak Camp, based out of Booker T. Washington Middle School, a marine-science magnet and partner with the Chesapeake Experience, a York County-based non-profit dedicated to environmental education on the Chesapeake Bay.
Even more surprising than the level of scientific knowledge the students possess is that some of them have just begun to study kayaking and scientific observation. The students gather at Washington's marine-science classroom. A few students know each other, or already attend Washington. But, for the most part, the first day of Kayak Camp comes with the same, new-kid nerves as summer camp. The classroom, painted ocean blue, is lined with at least 20 fish tanks. In them you find marine life – each tank containing something more interesting than the last. Most are the size of home aquariums; however, one in the corner resembles an aboveground swimming pool. It's there you will meet Bob the blowfish – beloved, unofficial mascot of Washington and friend to all who have visited Washington's marine- science classroom.
It's in this setting that students absorb knowledge of the Bay before going out into the field – and stream, or river. The students spend time each morning in the classroom. Although it's hard to hear over the water circulating in the many tanks, the seventh-graders learn about animals native to the Bay; challenges the Bay faces; and what states are part of the Bay watershed: Virginia, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – the students quickly recite.
Students have their kayaks in the water on the first day of camp. After learning the basics of kayak use and safety, the students paddle in the James River near The Mariners' Museum. Each of their kayaks, more brightly colored than the next, is named for a Bay species: Burt's kayak, the Widgeon Grass; Cody's, the Periwinkle; Erin's, the Green Heron; John's, the Black Needlerush. By Tuesday afternoon, an onlooker would assume the students are experienced kayakers. With little hesitation, they align their kayaks on the launching ramp and assist each other with getting them into the water. The students, years away from the legal age to drive a car, love navigating their own boats. It is a rare privilege to be trusted with the kayaks, and each student handles his or her new-found responsibility well.
After an hour of paddling in the Poquoson River and noting the species they encounter, the students turn to data collecting. Jacob and Cody check water clarity. As Jacob holds a long string off the pier, bobbing a black and white disc in the water, the two go back and forth about what they see. A few feet over, Megan and Madison collect water in tubes. Megan is checking phosphate levels. Madison is checking nitrate levels.
Behind them, Sheal waits patiently as the mercury on her thermometer climbs, measuring the air temperature. It's over 90, again. Erin, feet dangling off the pier, drops a thermometer into the water. Daniel and Burt move off the pier to get a more accurate measure of water clarity. Standing ankle-deep in the water, Daniel peers into a long, clear tube as Burt handles valves under the water. They will compare their findings with those of Jacob and Cody.
After each student verifies that his or her information is correct, they report to fellow camper John, who records their findings in the field notebook. He's amassing a list of the plant and animal species spotted during their paddle. The campers are fascinated by a recent encounter between a young osprey and an eagle. "The baby osprey was attacking the eagle!" the students exclaim.
Once their data is recorded, the students join Julian, who's helping one of the camp counselors tie chicken drumsticks to string to serve as crab bait. Before they throw their bait into the water, a review is necessary. "How do we identify a male crab?" a counselor asks. "The shape on its belly is like the Washington Monument!" says Jacob. He's correct. "And, what do we call them?" the counselor asks. "A Jimmy," says Jacob. Also correct. Then the counselor asks, "What about female crabs?" "The shapes on their bellies are like the Capitol Building," says Cody. Their recall of information learned in the classroom is perfect.
Following the quiz, the students line the pier, tugging on their strings to attract the attention of crustaceans. Within minutes, Jacob – who seems an old hand on the water – has caught the first crab. The students won't keep the crabs they net today. Instead, the crabs will be iced until they're relaxed enough to safely handle, then measured, identified as male or female, and returned to the river. "They get really charged up about this," Jill Bieri, director of the Chesapeake Experience says, explaining the benefits of Kayak Camp. In addition to getting kids off the couch, Kayak Camp teaches many students a new skill in kayaking, and informs them about the nearby bay.
After Wednesday's class, the students go geo-caching in the waters of Back Creek Park, using a handheld GPS to paddle to a designated nautical marker. After lunch, the students learn about oysters and how they filter water.
Thursday morning is the last day in the classroom. Afterwards, the students travel to New Quarter Park in York County and fish with nets from their kayaks in Queens Creek. Friday, the last day of camp, does not include a classroom session. Instead, the students make a longer paddle, from Back Creek Park to Bay Tree Beach.
As the week comes to a close, students reflect on their favorite parts of the week. Sheal says her favorite part has been kayaking for the first time. For Burt, it's learning about oysters and filtration.
But on Thursday morning, as their classroom session draws to an end, the students sit around a large table. No one is talking; instead each is coloring a large white square. The animals, or plants they're drawing correlate with the names of the kayaks they've been paddling all week.
"The squares are part of a quilt that will hang on the wall in the classroom until it's auctioned off at a charity event later," Bieri explains. It's a way for this group of campers to be remembered. Most of the students say they want to continue kayaking. So, just as part of the campers will stay at Washington, the experiences at kayak camp will stay with the students.
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