Sumner High students combine learning with shellfish development

GOULDSBORO — There may be a larger clam population in Gouldsboro and Steuben in the coming season, thanks to the helping hands and minds of Sumner Memorial High School students.

This year, the high school’s Pathways program teamed up with Gouldsboro and Steuben Shellfish Warden Mike Pinkham, the Schoodic Institute and Heidi Leighton of the Maine Department of Marine Resources to conduct a thorough series of tests designed to improve the growing conditions for clams.

They measured clam growth by hand and conducted experiments to determine the effectiveness of clam flats.

Pathways is an alternative education program where students engage with course material outside of the classroom. According to Susan Walsh, faculty advisor for the program, each year the topic and style of education change depending on the interests and needs of the students. Education requirements are worked into the projects.

Last year, Pathways and Schoodic Institute worked together on a conservation project at Baker Hill, a Frenchman Bay Conservancy site next to Sumner. That project went well, Walsh said, and helped lay the foundation for this year’s idea.

This fall, students put 10,000 seed clams down with the help of Downeast Institute, a marine education program based in Beals. They measured the clams by hand in millimeters, and were able to mathematically determine the amount of clams per acre, Pinkham said.

They covered some of the clams with nets to stop crab predation; others they left uncovered. They put some clams in large plastic boxes, and others were planted straight into the flats to act as a control group with no conditioning.

Their research showed which conditions allowed wild clams to settle in on top of those that were seeded. Generally speaking, according to a Schoodic Institute blog post summarizing the findings, the students discovered that boxes helped stimulate wild clam growth.

But part of their experiment was also in recognition of the fact that shellfish management is ultimately a local enterprise.

“Managing shellfish is different from town to town — what works in Steuben doesn’t necessarily work in Gouldsboro,” Pinkham said. Therefore, this research is valuable to the two towns because it provides hard data on their clam flats. “It’s a great opportunity for both parties to gain a lot of knowledge.”

Part of the project’s benefit for the towns is that the students are able to bring a fresh perspective to the work, Pinkham said. With more hands, they’re also able to take the project much further than Pinkham’s shellfish committees or Leighton’s Department of Marine Resources could on their own.

“The biggest hope is that the students get what they need out of it,” Pinkham said, “and Gouldsboro gets what they need out of it, and hopefully this information will be available to other municipalities.”

In terms of student benefits, Schoodic Institute Education Research Director Bill Zoellick said the project really enhances “authentic” learning. Zoellick oversees partnerships between the institute and outside schools.

“One of our missions is to help schools give students what I’ll call authentic science experiments, which is following the questions where they lead rather than ones where everyone already knows the answer,” Zoellick said.

Another major aspect of the project to him is a sense of ownership the students get from their work. This isn’t just classroom experiments with controlled and expected outcomes. Instead, the students are contributing research with tangible benefits to their home communities and potentially shellfish programs across the state.

“These students have been amazing,” Zoellick said. “They sat for two and a half hours and measured clams that were the size of grains of rice. They happily did this … They entered all the data in the spreadsheets and had a great time doing it.”

This year, a lot of the Pathways students work on lobster boats or have family members in that industry, Walsh said. This project gave them a good opportunity to work with that interest. Many of the students are already naturalists who spend their lives outside.

But it also has a problem-solving component that allows the students to enhance their research skills.

“If these kids’ biggest takeaway is how to ask questions and then have a way to think through and problem solve, that would be great,” Walsh said. “That has been one of the biggest things. And then for them to work with real scientists and people in the field, and they know that they can hold their own in the conversation, it’s a wonderful thing.”

The students have been invited to present their data at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, a three-day event in March that highlights crucial information in the industry. For Walsh, this is proof that the project brings real benefits to the community, something she sees as an important part of the Pathways program.

Pinkham said the research was beneficial to all parties involved, and is something he hopes can be replicated in the future.

For Zoellick, the project was successful enough that he hopes to partner with Ellsworth High School and Narraguagus High School on similar projects.

“We’re interested in having all students get excited in what science is all about,” Zoellick said. “For many students, the opportunity to get out, collect the data — it’s their data — wash the clams, and then start looking at the data, it’s an experience they’ve never had before … they’re getting to discover that they can do this. This isn’t something that’s out of their reach.”

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson began working for The Ellsworth American in mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.

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