Thursday, March 3, 2016

Better than textbooks and mundane homework assignments: celebrating 20 years with Save The Bay

By Michael Jedrey, Middle School Director and Middle School Science Teacher at Rocky Hill School

Rocky Hill School has embraced the environmental experiential education model that Save The Bay brings to hundreds of school children each year. We are fortunate enough to have a waterfront campus where this type of learning is typical throughout the year, and we praise Save The Bay for bringing it to the inner city and suburban schools that are far from the water’s edge. By replacing textbooks and mundane homework assignments with experiences with a seine net, collecting tank, and field guide, children’s imaginations and interest in science flourish as they discover the bounty that is their surroundings. They learn about the historical aspects of Bay islands, observe human impacts on the environment, and identify species along the wrack line of the shore.

Our School’s earliest collaboration with Save The Bay was 20 years ago this past January, when the School answered the call for volunteers to assist with the assessment of the impact of the January 19, 1996 oil spill off Moonstone Beach. Volunteers with Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coordinated efforts to search for injured wildfowl along miles of coastline. Upper School volunteers from Rocky Hill joined Save The Bay staff and volunteers a few days later to comb the shorelines of Narragansett Beach and Beavertail State Park in Jamestown. Our eight students and two faculty members searched the rocks and coves for affected birds. Although the birds in the area appeared normal, the student volunteers reported a very strong smell of oil all along the coast.

Over the past two decades, Rocky Hill students have worked with Save The Bay on beach cleanups along the Greene River and along the shores of Greenwich Bay. The important task of keeping the shoreline clean has been extended across all three divisions (Lower, Middle, and Upper School), and students participate in cleanups in the fall and the spring. It’s not uncommon to see Lower School students, returning from a science class on the shore, carrying trash found during their experiences back to the classroom buildings for proper disposal. They have embraced their role as protectors of the Bay and its inhabitants.

Since September 2008, Save The Bay educators have joined our 6th grade students along the waterfront during our Enviroweek when we swap our inside classrooms for outside experiences. Students and faculty spend five days learning about the flora and fauna of the salt marsh and the importance of ecosystems to the health of the Bay, and seining for creatures so they can understand what lives in the salt marsh. Through the Save The Bay education program, Rocky Hill students are exposed to protecting and preserving the Bay and they learn to make better choices for the Bay in the future.

A few years ago, Middle School students worked with Save The Bay eelgrass restoration specialists to transplant healthy eelgrass from the lower Bay to Greenwich Bay. The students and Save The Bay staff collected eelgrass clumps from Fort Getty in Jamestown, separated them into groups of five individual plants, and replanted them at the end of Sandy Point Beach in Potowomut section of Warwick. Although the transplanted eelgrass did not flourish and multiply, the students were able to see firsthand the importance of a healthy Bay on the ecosystem.

In early 2013, we worked with Save The Bay in proposing a project to DEM and the Coastal Resources Management Council to dredge the marsh at Rocky Hill School to allow water to drain freely. The marsh had been degraded from the excessive amounts of standing water on the surface. Reducing a mosquito breeding ground was the short term goal while the long term goal was for the currently flooded areas to colonize with marsh vegetation. The physical work began about 18 months later when Save The Bay habitat restoration specialists returned to the marsh to dig creeks using hand shovels while a DEM official operated a low ground pressure excavator to widen and deepen the channels.
Thanks to Save The Bay’s work draining the marsh, the School’s Land of Fires Nature Trail, cleared by student and parent volunteers in September 2014, is now fully accessible at low tide. Visitors to the trail will be able to witness the marsh’s health improve over time as water is drained from it each time the tide recedes. We have witnessed a return of shorebirds and vegetation from the areas that were free of the standing water.
The benefits to Rocky Hill students don’t end with the marsh dredging. Students study the marsh in all aspects as part of their environmental education and marine ecology curriculum. AP Environmental Science students use preliminary data collected by Save The Bay on where vegetation was found and what the density of the salt marsh was before dredging, then started data collecting on their own. Year after year, students will be able to see real data from a marsh that acts as their classroom, and will determine if the dredging has succeeded in bringing that marsh back to its full potential.

Working with and hearing the message of people committed to protecting the environment has profoundly impacted our students. There is power to the words of Save The Bay and we enjoy working them. Our own work on campus is validated when we hear from professionals who work on the health of the Bay, and we are delighted to continue to work with Save The Bay for another 20 years.

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