Digging for Answers: Students, Science and a Whole Lot of Mud

Written by Liza LePage, Digital Media Specialist

 

On a sunny June afternoon, I joined the entire 4th, 5th, and 6th grades from Georgetown (Maine) Central School for a field trip down to a local clam flat. The students and their teachers came eager to discover the results of an experiment that they had started this past fall.

 

Their study site is situated next to the state’s first commercial-size soft-shell clam farm—an experimental project that Manomet and shellfish harvester Chris Warner started two years ago.

 

When I first arrived, I was immediately greeted by Jay Holt, who owns the property that surrounds the flat. Like the students, Holt was eager to see what the students’ experiment would uncover and proceeded to explain the significance of the research to me over coffee.

 

The students, led by Warner, were seeking to uncover the answers to two major questions:

 

1. How much do soft-shell clams grow over the winter?

2. Can green crabs survive the winter under nets? 

 

 

Although simple, Holt explained that these questions could be critical to the future of soft-shell clam farming. The commonly held belief among harvesters is that clams do not grow that much over the winter. Yet, if this was challenged, it would build a strong case to seed and net baby clams in the late fall when greens crab populations and the price of clams are at their lowest.

 

 

 

In the fall, the students planted rows of baby clams under two mesh nets and planted baby clams alongside dozens of greens crabs under another net. When the classes came back to the site this spring, they were ready to see the results.

 

Their first order of business—dig the clams out of the mud and measure them. Science, math, and nature collided as students were instantaneously calculating total growth, estimating the mean, mode, and range of their data sets and hypothesizing potential causes of their results.

 

Then the focus shifted to the nets with green crabs. Within minutes, a dozen students were knee deep in the mud, searching for signs of clams and crabs. They immediately noticed that the plot was noticeably void of all signs of life.

 

After analyzing the data, the students found that on average the clams doubled in size over the winter, from 10 mm to 20 mm. Although this was an exciting result, it was more exciting to me that the students made discoveries that day that went beyond the classroom. I saw them learn to identify wild and hatchery-grown clams, get up close and personal with green crabs and take part in a real scientific study.  Some students left with a couple of adult clams for dinner, others with mud stained knees, but all of them had the opportunity to apply the skills they learned in the classroom to something real, something close to home.

 

Getting the opportunity to be out on the mud representing Manomet renews my hope for science, education and our future. I am proud to be a part of an organization that doesn’t just produce great science, but brings people in to be part of the research process and discoveries that lead to real solutions.

 

Although problems like climate change and natural resource management are complex, people are often the root of the problem, whether they know it or not. By engaging people of all ages where they live and work, we are helping to grow awareness of these complex problems and in turn inspire action to help solve them.