Learning through doing: Groups grow oysters

Published 10:05 pm Monday, August 8, 2011

From left, Cindy Pinell, Christine Pinell and Susan Patterson build floats out of PVC pipe to house oysters they will raise over the next year through an oyster restoration project, sponsored by the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance and the Oyster Reef Keepers of Virginia. Cindy and Christine are participating with Girl Scout Troop 782, and Patterson is doing the project with her earth science classes at Nansemond River High School.

Lakeland High School ecology teacher Jennifer Ledbutter-Phillips said her students are always asking about real-world uses for environmental science.

This year, instead of just hearing about what they can do, her students will experience it.

When her students get back in September, they will start a yearlong project raising oysters in the Nansemond River to learn more about the river while helping to restore its oyster population.

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“I wanted to enhance our ecology class by doing something different and giving students something to do that’s more hands-on,” Ledbutter-Phillip said.

She is one of about 14 teachers from schools in Suffolk and Isle of Wight County that are participating in the Schools Restoring Oysters to the Chesapeake project, sponsored by the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance and the Oyster Reef Keepers of Virginia.

Next month, each of the classes will get 2,000 baby oysters to place in a float in the Nansemond River.

Every month, the students will monitor the oysters for growth and study the quality of the water and the impact of humans on the river.

NRPA education coordinator Karla Smith said everybody should get hands-on experience with the water in the area.

“It’s the first opportunity for Suffolk and Isle of Wight people have had to participate in the program,” said Karla Smith, NRPA education coordinator. “It’s an effort to create awareness for our rivers and our water.”

Smith said she thinks having an education program helps bring attention to the river because students will spread the word about the work they are doing.

Laurie Sorabella, Oyster Reef Keepers program director, has been working with schools to restore oyster populations for the past 14 years, but this is her first time working with Suffolk.

She said the program can be used at any grade level to teach about river ecosystems, but it also addresses standards of learning for several different subjects, including science, math and history.

In addition to monitoring the oysters once a month, the students will learn about the history of the river, analyze data they collect at the floats and participate in classroom activities pertaining to the oyster project.

Sorabella said she gives the teachers the tools to get started, but they can adapt it to fit the needs of their class.

“The teachers are really the ones who take the program on,” she said. “I give them the basis for the program, and they use it as a springboard to take it to the next level.”

Tracy Williams, a sixth-grade science teacher at Forest Glen Middle School, said she is looking to adapt the program to work for two classes with a limited amount of time.

Williams teaches science to two groups of students during each semester.

She said she thinks she will be able to make it work for her needs.

“It’s a matter of applying the information to each of the selections,” she said.

Williams participated in the program nine years ago when she taught in Virginia Beach, and she said it makes the subject come to life for the students.

In addition to the classes, Girl Scout Troop 782 and some citizens are also participating in the program.

Christine Pinell, a rising ninth-grader at Nansemond River High School and a member of Girl Scout Troop 782, said the girls in the troop decided to participate in the program because they wanted to do something to help the river.

“We like going to the docks (for activities), so we thought let’s do something that helps the water,” she said.

At the conclusion of the program in the spring, the groups will take transplant trips and place the oysters in restoration reefs.

Sorabella said the program has been very successful in other localities, such as Virginia Beach, and she is hoping to continue the success in Suffolk.

She said after working in the Lynnhaven River since 1997, the oyster population has grown 10 times.

“The oyster population is really rebounding,” she said. “It’s a big accomplishment. I feel like that’s something we can replicate in the Nansemond River.”