November 13, 2019
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Students from Bangor, Waterville get eelgrass experience

BAR HARBOR, Maine — It is not often that middle and high school students get academic instruction outside the classroom, but last week a dozen students from Bangor and Waterville were so eager for some field experience that they gave up their April vacations for a week of study on the shore of Frenchman Bay.

Thanks to some funding from the University of Maine, six students each from Bangor and Waterville and a teacher from each city spent last week at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, learning how to monitor water quality and about eelgrass restoration efforts nearby in the bay. The program is aimed at teaching students about citizen science, in which residents of an area monitor environmental conditions where they live, and to promote environmental leadership, according to lab officials. It is financially supported by UMaine’s Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence, which is a National Science Foundation program.

“It was loads of fun,” Sabrina Rancourt, a 16-year-old student at Waterville Senior High School, said Friday. “A few times, we got our boots stuck.”

During the week, participants went to Hadley Point on Mount Desert Island to learn about taking water samples that they later analyzed at MDI Bio Lab. They also spent time collecting water samples, taking GPS coordinates and studying eelgrass habitat at Bar Island. In between their field trips, students and teachers attended lectures, participated in lab workshops, learned about geographic information systems and kept journals. On Friday, students had to give presentations on what they had learned to parents, friends and MDI Bio Lab staff.

Rancourt said she was happy to spend her vacation learning about marine studies at the lab. She said she wants to be a marine biologist.

“In school, you can’t really get field work,” Rancourt said. “I want to come back and help plant eelgraas [in June].”

Tracy Vassiliev, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at James F. Doughty School in Bangor, said part of the program included building biodegradable grids that will be used to transplant eelgrass to Eastern Bay, off Lamoine State Park. She said all of the subject matter covered by the program is new to the participating students.

“This has been an amazing experience,” Vassiliev said Friday. “I wish I had this experience when I was a middle school student. They’re doing hard-core science.”

Vassiliev said the program appeals to students because they can get outside and even get muddy while they learn. Students also sometimes had to help improvise in the field to solve particular problems, such as how to use biodegradable materials to get eelgrass to take root in the bay, she said. The solution they found was to use twine to tie eelgrass to wooden grids that rest on the bottom.

The teacher said she had heard about the MDI Bio Lab program through word-of-mouth and, when she asked some of her students if they wanted to do it, had no problem finding willing attendees.

“I had six students volunteer right off,” she said.

Dr. Jane Disney, director of MDI Bio Lab’s community environmental health laboratory, said Friday that lab officials decided to recruit students from schools away from the coast for the April program so they could spread the word about the importance of protecting marine environments. Students in the program learn about not only the role of oceans in the global environment, but also what they can do in their own lives to help protect water quality everywhere.

“We need an ocean-literate society,” Disney said. “It’s fun and rewarding to do this kind of work.”

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