By Doreen Leggett
Nancy Goward stood in a room dwarfed by clear tanks filled with water of varying earth-tone colors at A.R.C. Hatchery.
“This whole entire room is just food,” said Goward, an algae supervisor at the shellfish facility.
About half a dozen children, clipboards pressed against their chests, watched as she lifted a heavy tire up off the concrete floor.
“Why do you think I have this?” she asked.
Sean Garland raised his hand.
“Because that is what algae looks like,” he said.
Garland, a third grader, was right. When he arrived with about 60 classmates from Harwich Elementary School at A.R.C. earlier this month, Goward knew she would be giving tours to youngsters who knew their stuff.
Students in both Harwich and Chatham elementary schools are involved in a pilot shellfish curriculum project developed by the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, supported by a host of grants.
The value of learning about the nearby world was not lost on third grade teacher Jaclyn Cleary.
“Kids need to be exposed to different jobs in the world,” said Cleary. “These people are taking time out of their day and their jobs to teach us about all these things we don’t know.
“Kids will say, ‘I want to be an astronaut, I want to design rockets.’ Now they can say, ‘I can be an aquaculturist,’ something local.”
As three classes went from station to station, Goward and other instructors were impressed (but not surprised) at the wealth of shellfish-y knowledge the students had absorbed from a 16-lesson curriculum.
The materials run the gamut from what shellfish are, to shellfish conservation, to how the animals clean the water.
“Going into it, most of my kids knew nothing about what shellfish were,” said Cleary. “They knew crabs and lobsters; they didn’t actually know there were oysters and clams and people did this for living.”
They also learned about the myriad waterways around Cape Cod, why animals that live in them matter, and perhaps most importantly why advocacy matters.
Students learned that “‘conserve’ is a fancy word that means ‘protect,’ what you can do to help your community,” Cleary continued.
The trip to A.R.C. was the culmination of their learning, resulting in “Shellfish Ambassador” badges.
Ellen Minichiello of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was standing, boots on, in a salt pond a stone’s throw away from the A.R.C. buildings near Chapin Beach.
About 20 students were arrayed in front of her on sloping sand for a “hands-on, minds-on” experience. The students had already told her that clams, or quahogs, like to bury themselves in sand.
“What about oysters?” Ellen asked.
Hands shot into the air and Sophie Larivee had a ready answer.
“They try and stick to something, like a rock,” she said.
Breonna Mody, Daejah Williams and JoJo Vanetta were all measuring clams with a gauge and calipers. The group was asked if they knew what the legal size was.
One inch, they agreed.
“That was one of our questions in Jeopardy,” said Daejah.
The shellfish-themed quiz game they played a few days before included categories ranging from vocabulary to conservation to biologic threats to shellfish.
“What is the outer tissue of a clam called?” was the hardest question, said Madeline McCauley (although there was some disagreement about that). She knows the answer now: the mantle. A flip book that compared human and shellfish bodies also helped; for example, both have bellies.
The shellfish curriculum gave teachers the opportunity to fold in other disciplines, from history to math.
Mel Sanderson, chief operating officer at the Fishermen’s Alliance and architect of the endeavor, was standing outside at A.R.C.’s upwellers, where shellfish move to after getting pampered for six weeks inside the hatchery.
“It was inspiring to see how excited the students were to hold baby oysters and dig for clams! Getting hands-on really connects them with why they should be shellfish ambassadors,” Sanderson said.
Kenley Medeiros was most interested in the journey of tiny shellfish from when they spawn, getting a start in small buckets, to their steady progress to tanks, a downweller, an upweller and then on to different types of cages or to a grower.
“We figured out how many go in a bag when you send them to a farm,” Medeiros said.
That required a math problem with a white board and calculator, using volumetric measuring to avoid having to count every single animal — what the staff does to measure out seed orders.
“Nobody wants to count out 200,000 baby oysters,” Sanderson said with a smile.
Although Jack Gula sees himself working with bigger animals someday, like sharks, he thought the visit was close to perfect.
“It’s really fun for me,” said Jack Gula, “learning about actual creatures.”
Grant funding provided by Cape Cod Foundation, Chatham Fund of the Cape Cod Foundation, Horizon Foundation, Joan Bentinck Smith Foundation, Massachusetts Environmental Trust