Bates Middle students get hands-on oyster lesson

Bates Middle students get hands-on oyster lesson
Bates Middle School student Samara Henson checks out a shell covered in spat as part of the Annapolis Maritime Museum and Park’s Oyster Education Program on Tuesday. (Rachael Pacella / Capital Gazette)

The Harbor Queen hovered near an oyster reef at the mouth of the Severn River Tuesday, as sixth-graders from Bates Middle School lined a rail at the stern.

Each grabbed an oyster shell covered in baby oysters, or spat, and after a short goodbye poem chucked the tiny creatures into the water.


The hope is the oysters will grow and filter water, helping to clean the Chesapeake Bay. The students were holding the future of the bay in their hands, volunteer Josh Schmidt said, and putting them on a sanctuary.

The Bates students took a field trip Tuesday that was the final step in the Annapolis Maritime Museum and Park's year-long Oyster Education Program.

Education Director Sarah Krizek said the program is focused on the Eastern oyster. In the winter, the museum goes out to four middle schools, where students build a model of the oyster and also complete a dissection. The museum raises baby oysters, and students stay connected with the spat during the year through a blog. Then, in the spring, it is time to plant oysters.

On the boat Tuesday students also learned how to measure salinity and dissolved oxygen, calculated the approximate distance between City Dock and the reef, counted the average number of spat on a shell, and learned about the other organisms that make their home among oyster shells.

Then the students traveled to the Ellen O. Moyer Park at Back Creek, the museum's second campus, to hear from a Chesapeake Bay waterman, learn about the effects of different methods of oyster harvesting, and about how oyster reefs affect shoreline erosion.

"We teach them that oysters are beneficial to the Chesapeake Bay for multiple reasons. They help to filter the water, they also serve as a buffer, they serve as a habitat, and they provide jobs for people," Krizek said. "So we're trying to teach them it's not just one thing we're looking at, it's this ecological point of view, that everything is intertwined. And we also try to teach them they can do something too to make a difference."

Waterman John VanAlstine speaks to students from Bates Middle School as part of the Annapolis Maritime Museum and Park’s Oyster Education Program.
Waterman John VanAlstine speaks to students from Bates Middle School as part of the Annapolis Maritime Museum and Park’s Oyster Education Program. (Rachael Pacella / Capital Gazette)

Anne Arundel County Public Schools wants to provide an authentic, hands-on environmental learning experience for students to accompany its curriculum, Coordinator of Environmental Literacy and Outdoor Education Melanie Parker said. For some students that means visiting a stream restoration site, among other options.

For students at Bates, Annapolis, Severn River and Meade middle schools, it means participating in the museum's program. And two additional schools will do the same next year, Parker said.

Sixth-grade science teacher Courtney Merchant said the program helps students connect the environmental lessons they're learning in class with the real world — some have never been to downtown Annapolis, or have never seen the Bay Bridge, she said.

"For lots of students, this is their first time on a boat," she said.

At the park, students spent nearly an hour talking with waterman John VanAlstine. He started by showing them how he makes a net.

In discussing his work as a waterman, VanAlstine offered the students economic and environmental lessons, such as the negative effect pollution has on not just his livelihood but others'. He also offered advice on self-motivation and the importance of school.

He showed the students how a person who has learned to properly store and deal oysters as well as harvesting them can make four times the money, but they have to put in the work, learn some science and get the licenses they need.

"At this point you might think the most important thing is what your neighbors are whispering to you in class, what I'm proving to you right here is the most important thing is what teacher's teaching," he said.


The person who could harvest the oysters alone made $50 a bushel. The person who paid attention in class and went the extra mile was able to sell the oysters by the dozen for $10.

It is worth it to learn science, math and English, be self-motivated and take that extra step, he said.