Study Offers Students Insight into Real Life Application of Research
HATHORNE— For the last 20 years, students at Essex Tech have passed the torch onward for a research project studying the salt marsh on Eastern Point in Gloucester.
The project is part of an ongoing, collaborative study with Mass Audubon. Through the study, a generation of Essex Tech students over the past two decades have collected data monitoring the composition of the salt marsh vegetation as well as the fish and crustacean population there. Students additionally continue to study the ground water salinity at the marsh. While the study initially set out to analyze the impact of the invasive Phragmites australis (the common reed) and the restoration of the marsh, data being collected today also provides insight into climate change and sea level rise.
“Getting students this level of hands on experience is really what its all about– these opportunities are invaluable to young people, and its really exciting to see their eyes opened to the direct impact science can have right in their backyard,” Superintendent Heidi Riccio said. “We’re incredibly thankful to Mass Audubon for making this opportunity possible, and I’d also like to thank (Natural and Environmental Science teacher) Anthony Wilbur and his students for continuing to prioritize this important work even amid the outstanding challenges this school year has presented.”
Mass Audubon normally works with a dozen North Shore area schools to conduct this research, but only a handful in addition to Essex Tech were able to participate this year amid the ongoing pandemic. Other participating schools this school year include Ipswich High School in Ipswich, Saints Academy in Beverly, Holten Richmond Middle School in Danvers and Rupert A. Knock Middle School in Newburyport.
This year, 24 juniors taking an Environmental Technology Marine Ecology class taught by Natural and Environmental Science teacher Anthony Wilbur at Essex Tech visited the salt marsh on Eastern Point in Gloucester on Nov. 9, 2020, to collect data and continue the school’s legacy of work on the project.
“What I like about the Mass Audubon Salt Marsh project is that it allowed us to get hands on experience in the field while also learning about the importance of the salt marsh habitat and why we need to focus on taking care of it and monitoring its changes over time,” said Michelle Powers, an Essex Tech junior of Salem.
Wilbur has taught the class at Essex Tech for five years.
“It was a great project to inherit,” Wilbur said. “Before I came to teach I was a marine ecologist. This project allowed me to continue studying salt marshes, something I’m passionate about, and bring it right into the classroom. It’s an incredible example of the value science has to inform decisions not only to conserve habitats, but to restore them. Students are able to see the real life application of the science we’re doing in the classroom to an issue right here in their community.”
Students also visited several other salt marsh habitats this fall to prepare for the study. They assessed their data and considered it in addition to the data collected by the generation of Essex Tech students before them, and created virtual research posters, linked here, with their findings. In a typical school year, students would have presented at Mass Audubon’s Coastal Science Conference, however instead Mass Audubon will be meeting with each school independently due to the ongoing pandemic.
“What I liked about the Mass Audubon project was that we were able to work with Mass Audubon directly to gather data and analyze it,” said Makayla Vigneaux, an Essex Tech junior of Salisbury. “It was pretty cool that the data we collected goes right to them for them to analyze as well. It gave students a real world example of what this program can lead to for employment. The poster portion was also great. It let us take away from what we learned at the study site and after and apply it to make a poster. It was also nice to do some of our own research which also gives us a great skill to have when entering the workforce. The whole thing was a great opportunity and I wish every school was able to have it.”
“I liked how interactive the project was,” said Jonathan Daley, an Essex Tech junior of Salem. “We were set with real problems in salt marshes and took responsibility in collecting the data to solve and interpret the data – all while learning the value and importance of salt marsh habitat and how the salt marsh functions.”
Continuing a legacy in Unprecedented Times
The salt marsh project faced two major, unprecedented hurdles this school year, however. Wilbur and his students pursued the project in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant the added challenges of social distancing, mask wearing and carefully planning transportation to ensure the health and well being of all involved while students traveled to collect data at the salt marsh.
The program also faced an even more pivotal change this school year, as Salt Marsh Science Program Director Liz Duff, who oversaw the program for the past two decades, passed away in the spring. Her relationships with scientists, educators, students and other stakeholders in the Great Marsh made the program into the robust, ongoing study it is today.
The program is now overseen by Community Science and Coastal Resilience Manager for Mass Audubon North Shore David Moon, who long looked up to Duff as a mentor.
“She’s always in the back of my mind, and we’re very cognizant of the legacy she created here and are dedicated to building on it and growing from it as we rebound from the pandemic,” Moon said. “Essex Tech is a great partner for us in this program, because the students there are so highly trained. This program supports rigorous science that examines important questions and showcases the power of a 20- plus year data set. It’s a great example of how a good study can collect data that may answer more questions than you initially set out with.”
“She was a special person on the North Shore,” Wilbur said of Duff.
For more information on the Salt Marsh project, click here.