Dunloggin Middle School students found last year's trip to the Chesapeake Bay disappointing. There were only a couple live oysters in the piles of cracked, dead ones brought up by a trawl.
"It was pretty sad," said Dunloggin gifted and talented resource teacher Pamela Kidwell. "The kids wanted to know, 'Why is this?' "
The annual field trip to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Philip Merrill Environmental Education Center in Annapolis proved to be a springboard for an even bigger service-learning project. Kidwell and Dunloggin science teacher Dan Blue discussed how they could turn the students' disappointment into a learning opportunity.
This year, students at the Ellicott City school started raising their own oysters, and on May 23, introduced about 750 live oysters into the bay during their annual trip to Annapolis.
"This got the kids involved in their community, helped them solve a community problem and taught them environmentally safe practices," Blue said. "They've developed citizenship skills. This is exactly what we wanted to do. What these kids did is special."
The students who took part in the oyster-raising project, which Blue said he hopes continues in coming years, were picked by Blue and Kidwell for their interest in marine biology. Through the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster gardening project, the students started working last fall. They built four oyster cages that became home to spat (baby oysters) provided by Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery in Cambridge, then put those cages in the waters off the Kentmorr Marina near the Bay Bridge in Stevensville.
Once every two weeks throughout the year, a different student and his or her family traveled to Stevensville to clean and monitor the cages, keeping track of the oysters' progress.
"This was the kids' project through and through," Blue said. "It was a long-term project they took responsibility for, and we had such great support from so many people."
Those people include those at Kentmoor, who provided the docking space for the cages, the representatives of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Don Merritt at the oyster hatchery and Claude Poudrier, a Montreal-based environmental educator with the Alcoa Foundation, who provided Blue and Kidwell with a community problem-solving curriculum.
Throughout the year, students not only traveled to the Kentmoor docks, but to the oyster hatchery, where they learned where the spat originally came from. In class, they learned about the importance of oysters to the health of the bay.
"They filter the bay's nutrients," said eighth-grader Natalie Varela, 14. "They're important. Since the bay is really polluted, the oysters are dying. We didn't realize how important they were and how things were getting worse. We just wanted to make it better."
A school year is a long time to dedicate to a project, Kidwell said, and the students got attached to the oysters. When the group of 10 took the oysters out into the water on a sunny late May day, Blue said he and Kidwell asked the students to give the oysters a farewell message before depositing them in an oyster sanctuary reef outside the mouth of the Severn River.
"It was almost a sad occasion," he said. "Here's something you take care of and raise for a year, and then you have to release them."
Sad, but funny, Kidwell said.
"They told their oysters, 'go to college,' 'make sure you call your parents,' " Kidwell said. "They were giving the goodbyes you would give to a child."
It's understandable, Natalie said. The students and their families did care for the oysters in good and bad weather and had spent hours learning about them.
"These were our babies," she said. "They're our little guys. But it's cool because we made a difference. We put something good back into the bay."