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Annapolis students help save oyster shells from archaeological dig for Chesapeake restoration

Zaniyah Dailey, 10, a fourth grade student, loads shells into a bucket to move to a pickup truck, Friday April 30, 2021. Annapolis Elementary students donated oyster shells found at a nearby excavation to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to be used for spat to grown new oysters.
Zaniyah Dailey, 10, a fourth grade student, loads shells into a bucket to move to a pickup truck, Friday April 30, 2021. Annapolis Elementary students donated oyster shells found at a nearby excavation to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to be used for spat to grown new oysters. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Students from Annapolis Elementary School loaded two wheelbarrows worth of oyster shell unearthed from an archaeological dig next to their downtown playground into a truck, headed for delivery to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and growing new oysters and nourishing reefs.

The kids scooped handfuls of shell into buckets while wearing big stickers saying “I love oysters.”

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A structure to pump away water is being built on flood-prone property at Newman and Compromise streets, next to the school. The work meant a routine archaeological investigation, city Capital Project Director Lisa Grieco said.

Grieco said the site is a designated archaeological site, so a lot of investigation has been required ahead of construction.

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Annapolis Elementary is the oldest school still operating in the Anne Arundel County, and opened in 1896. Among artifacts found next to the building are marbles and a cache of slate pencils.

Starting in March when students returned to classrooms for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, students watched the archaeologists excavate the site during their midday school break. A pile of oyster shells grew and grew as archaeologists from AECOM, the engineering firm working on the project, dug.

On a virtual CBF field trip in mid-April, students learned how oysters filter water, how they create habitat and how they fuel the region’s seafood industry. They also learned that oyster shells are an in-demand item, because discarded shell can be used to grow new oysters.

Recognizing the pile of artifact shells as a resource, the students wanted to make sure they weren’t discarded again.

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The school struck an agreement with the archaeologists, who cleaned the shells off and brought them over the property line to Annapolis Elementary. The archaeologists counted, weighed and photographed bulk artifacts like oyster shell, brick and window glass at the site, according to a plan on the city’s website. Other artifacts are bagged and taken to a lab.

What might have been buried again will now bloom.

“It was completely unplanned, serendipitous for us,” Principal Shelley Hartford said. “It was a true application of the children’s learning. They learned about this idea, saw it in the community and wanted to take action to help.”

Leanne Gregory teaches STEM in Society at Annapolis Elementary School, part of the recently-added Triple-E program that brings a fifth special class to schools to give students more to learn and teachers more time to plan. Gregory said she thinks the Chesapeake Bay has more stewards thanks to the experience, and the kids have also asked great questions, a skill her class works to develop.

They are also launching a unit on archaeology, during which they can discuss potential careers related to the field or relatives of the discipline such as paleontology, the study of dinosaurs.

During the virtual field trip on April 15, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Nathan Hesse taught the students how oysters filter the water, create reefs where other animals live and contribute to Maryland’s legacy as a seafood destination.

Hesse said they show the kids the different types of animals that live on oyster reefs through a video. They also ask them to come up with an extra superpower, other than filtering water, that an oyster might have.

He said they want the students to feel connected to the environment, so they can apply what they have learned throughout their life.

By the end of the school year, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation will have served about 40,000 students through its Online Watershed Learning program.

Foundation spokesperson AJ Metcalf said once the shells are dropped off CBF will take them to the Maryland Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, where any remaining debris will be removed and the shells will be placed in large tanks of water. Oyster larvae are added to the water and “set” or attach to the shell.

Those baby oysters, or spat on shell, could then be deposited in the Tred Avon River on the Eastern Shore as part of a restoration project there, or they may go to participants in CBF’s oyster gardening program, where people grow the young oysters dockside for about a year.

Metcalf said the discarded oyster shells are becoming a bit of a commodity, used by people for commercial aquaculture as well as for restoration. Getting shell donated helps CBF reduce the cost of oyster restoration.

“Every little bit helps,” he said.

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