Maryland Bar Association partners with nonprofit to teach about pollution and a solution — the oyster

Bryan Gomes passed out a couple live oysters to fourth grade students at Oak Hill Elementary School Monday morning.

As the kids inspected the stone-like creatures, another was shucked, put under a camera and projected onto a smart board so the kids could watch as Gomes dissected the bivalve and pointed to the algae it eats and the stomach it ends up in.

“They did sign a waiver with their little oyster arms, so we’re all good,” Gomes said.

That statement wouldn’t stand up in court, as oysters do not have arms.

And while Gomes, the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s Education program manager, may not be in court often, its a part of everyday life for the volunteers helping him.

Four classes of fourth graders got a hands-on lesson Monday on pollution and a possible solution — the oyster — as part of the Heroes on the Half Shell program, a partnership between the Maryland Bar Association and the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

“The main purpose of the exercise is to get the kids invested in the bay,” defense attorney Anne Deady of Pasadena said.

That means recognizing everyone plays a role in polluting the bay, but also that there are ways to help preserve it.

Heroes on the Half Shell launched in 2012. Volunteers have visited schools in Baltimore City and Howard County, but the visit to Oak Hill in Severna Park was their first in Anne Arundel.

Much of what the lawyers taught the children about Monday was based in science, not the law. But lawyers do have a role to play in protecting the environment — they could help write and enforce the law, Baltimore City prosecutor Michael Hudak said.

Consumer attorney Kathleen Hyland also helped with Monday’s lesson.

“I think it’s really important to go beyond our offices and start teaching children that they are the most important consumers in our state who can best protect the environment,” Hyland said.

The lawyers donate their time for the program, and the connection is also beneficial for the Oyster Recovery Partnership because of the influential circle lawyers are a part of, which brings more awareness and resources to the work of the nonprofit, Gomes said.

To learn about pollution the students started with a clear tank of water at the front of the class. Gomes even drank a little to show how clean it was. Each student was given a film canister filled with a pollutant, such as sediment, and Deady told them a story about the Chesapeake Bay’s colonization and development through modern day.

The children added their pollutant to match up with the story’s timing. Ground up leaves were added to show a severe storm in colonial times. Other materials were dumped in showing the affects of development, agriculture, power generation and motor vehicles, until the water was a greenish-brown mess.

Once students learned about how the bay came to be polluted, they got the hands-on biology lesson from Gomes. He passed around shellacked oyster shells that showed baby oysters, or spat, in various stages of development. He also told students that oysters can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day.

And, of course, he showed them what an oyster looks like up close, and offered each student a chance to touch its soft and slimy inside. One girl was torn and spoke her inner monologue aloud — she couldn’t decide whether or not to touch the oyster.

Ultimately, she got rid of her reticence and participated, Gomes said. And that kind of engagement is what is needed to help clean up the environment, he said. It’s fun and gets students outside their comfort zone.

“Whether they’re scared, disgusted, regardless, it’s engaging and that’s what we need to kind of transfer that knowledge,” he said.

Heroes on the Half Shell is visiting four schools, including Oak Hill, this school year. The students at those schools have been challenged to collect as many oyster shells as they can in two months time and the winning school gets a free field trip and pizza party at the Maryland Science Center.

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