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STEM Learning Gets Fishy On Fox Island

Educators from around the country have adopted environmental literacy and science, engineering and technology (STEM) programs as part of a grass roots movement to get kids outside and learning.

As part of that effort, teachers from New York to West Virginia are taking their students to a remote island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay for some hands-on science education and lessons about working on the bay both as a waterman and a biologist.

Fox Island, surrounded by Tangier and Pocomoke sounds, is one of five education centers the Chesapeake Bay Foundation operates in and around the bay. It is an “off-the-grid” place where students spend three days working on boats, beaches and marshes alongside their teachers, two biologists, and a waterman.

A group of 18 seventh graders from rural Virginia dredged for oysters on one recent, windy, cold day. A few got seasick, but they rose to the occasion when the oysters landed on board.

“When Captain John Smith came through here he could see 20 feet clear to the bottom, but now, we think six feet is a pretty good depth to be able to see down into the water,” says biologist Pete Butz, who incorporates some history into the lesson.

CBF was given the island in the 1970s as part of  a plea-bargain that allowed the previous owners to avoid jail time for illegally baiting water fowl. It came with a bare bones 1920s hunting lodge that sits on pilings four feet above high tide. Crews added solar on the roof to run a refrigerator and a few lights. And then came Clivis Multrum.

The waterless, composting toilet is a two-story, architectural masterpiece occupying one side of the lodge. There are 14 steps to private throne-like, his-and-her bathrooms with jaw-dropping views of the bay.

Teachers come during the summer to train with CBF's Bill Portlock. “It's a five-day class and then the teachers develop a unit--a work plan of how they will use the bay or the rivers in teaching their students,” he says.

On the first day of their trip, students washed the breakfast dishes with water supplied by twelve-year-old Erin Burgess who rode a stationary bike to operate the pump. At first it seemed like fun, but later she decided she wouldn't want this setup at home. “I'd get tired of riding a bike,” she said with a sigh.

Erin's science teacher, Dr. Mathieu Sisk has heard this all before. And it's exactly why, out of the five Chesapeake Bay Foundation centers, he chose the most primitive and remote. “I joke around all the time, 'oh, yeah, there's an app for that.' Well there's no app for getting out to Fox Island and experiencing Fox Island,” says Dr. Sisk. “To be stuck in the classroom and you're daydreaming about being outside, I remembered that, and I'm like, 'you know, I'd rather take these students outside than keeping them boxed in here.'”

Research backs the positive effects of getting kids outside. Portlock, who has been teaching for 21 years, says hands-on learning boosts retention in students while cutting down on absenteeism. “We see a broad range of individuals and state agencies that embrace the idea that students, children, all of us should be outside more for health and well-being but also to develop those environmental ethics that lead to good stewardship,” he says.

On a cold and rainy day the kids headed out for a walking lecture on the marshes, and some of that hands-on learning. After they learned about the importance of marshes in the bay's ecosystem, one student, then groups of them, began leaping into holes of black, stinky, sticky muck--some up to their chests. There may have been decaying fish in there, but they didn’t care.

Later, out on the bay, the students learned about crabbing from veteran waterman Captain Larry Laird and biologist Annie Markwith. But it's baiting the crab pot that gets the kids excited. “This fish gave it's life for us so we can catch a lot of crabs, so we need to look deep into its fishy eyes and say thank you menhaden and give him a big old smooch,” Markwith said just before she puckered up and gave the dead fish a big, loud kiss. “So if you're a waterman, you need to get those oils out of this oily fish to attract those crabs, right?”

And how did she get the oils out? Markwith opened wide, chomped down and ripped off the head of the fish with her teeth, then packed it into the crab pot.

When it's their turn, some kids are game and others not so much. “I'm not doing that” said one girl. “Give it to me, I'll do it,” said a boy, who did.

The kids are taken to watch the sun rise, learn constellations and fish. They learn about the history of nearby islands and compete with other schools to use the least amount of water and electricity. They also get to see what's living underwater. As they squeeze sea squirts, they find out they're related to them and, as Markwith dissects an oyster, they find out it has a heart when she shows them a tiny orange, dot-shaped mass.

“Even students in communities where there are watermen working--[sometimes] even their dads or their families--they're not as familiar with the water,” says Portlock. “And we try to have that opportunity for them so they can experience going out and seeing what lives in the bay and also ways to make it better.”

Along with teaching science Dr. Sisk tries to inspire his students to work on the water, whether it's as a waterman or a marine biologist. “ I want the kids to understand if we don't do something about it, it will vanish,” said Dr. Sisk.

As sea levels rise, Fox Island is slowly disappearing. But for the students who come here, it will last a lifetime.