Thursday, March 5, 2020

Salish Sea Science

A Field Trip Program for Local Third and Fourth Graders

The articulated skeleton of Hope, the transient orca, hanging in the PTMSC Museum. 

Since 2008, the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s Salish Sea Science Program (formerly Free Science Classes) has served more than 8,575 children from East Jefferson, East Clallam, and North Kitsap counties, including Whidbey Island. This program brings third and fourth graders to the PTMSC where they participate in activities that help them decide how to think about the sustainability of our Salish Sea.

The classes are held mid-January to mid-March. Carolyn Woods, PTMSC education coordinator, also attends the classes and interacts with the children when they break out into groups.

Salish Sea Science Program participant Arianna Beringer. 
“The Salish Sea Science class provides hands-on science field trip programs for third and fourth grade students in the region that lets them connect with their local marine environment and inspire them to protect it,” Woods said. “We don’t charge for the program and we also provide bus stipends to schools to make it as accessible as possible for the teachers and students who would benefit most from a field trip experience.”

On February 12, a big, yellow bus full of students from Chimacum Elementary arrived at the PTMSC. The classes split in two groups, one headed for the Aquarium on the pier and the other for the Museum across the street.

The energy and enthusiasm was contagious, and not just because the students were outside of their normal routine — their interest in the material was clear. They excitedly raised their hands or shouted out answers to questions.

AmeriCorps members Marley Loomis (PTMSC aquarium educator) and Ellie Kravets (PTMSC museum educator) taught the interactive classes. AmeriCorps, which is sometimes referred to as the domestic Peace Corps, is part of the Corporation for National and Community Service. It was created by President Clinton in 1993 with the goal of assisting nonprofits with their work.

The children attending the Salish Sea Science Program sat on the Museum floor surrounded by buckets and backpacks. They participated in experiments that modeled concepts like sustainable fishing techniques, using corks in a kid’s pool to represent desired fish species versus bycatch. Bycatch can be a different species, the wrong sex or size, or juveniles of the target species (NOAA: Understanding Bycatch). The morning and afternoon sessions lasted 90 minutes each, with lunch in the middle.

Sam Thompson learning about marine toxins. 
The students learned about different gear, the length of the fishing season, how much bycatch was acceptable and how many fish they needed to sustain an imaginary fishing business. Using this information for three levels of experiments, they decided which combination of methods worked best to limit over fishing or killing too much bycatch.

The first experiment was an eye opener for the youngsters. A free-for-all left the pool mostly empty with “dead catch” covering the floor between the fishing area and their bucket boats. They soon realized that there were no fish left to reproduce, and wide segments of the food web had been taken out of the picture, leaving no food for any creature. The students quickly decided this wasn’t the way to go.

By the third experiment, the youths had determined the necessary balance to sustain the fishery and maintain their fishing business.

The Aquarium session was centered around the food web (Food Web/National Geographic). Students learned about organisms, producers, consumers, predators and prey and how they eat, or feed, each other.

The intertwined cycle begins with producers, generally a plant that transforms energy from the sun for its own nutrition. Students used photos to create a diagram of the interactions between various organisms that show they can serve more than one purpose in various food chains. They also learned that if only one organism is removed from the web, all the other organisms could be affected.

Reilly Goss and Adele Fordham in the Aquarium. 
Reilly Goss and Adele Fordham had attended the program several times. When asked whether they learned something new this year, Reilly realized that a food chain is not the same as a food web. In a web the lines can go to different organisms and directions.

“It was a lot of fun. It would be fun to visit with family, too,” said Reilly.

Adele Fordham said: “I didn’t understand before that an organism is everything from the littlest to the biggest things. I learn so much, and different things, each time I come here.”

The Salish Sea Science Program isn’t all fun and games though. Students take a test after each session to reinforce what they learned that day. The tests are also used to verify if the program is working as intended.

“Having worked for the National Marine Fisheries Service [part of NOAA], I am extremely impressed with the sophistication of scientific concepts anchoring this lesson,” said Kit Pennell, Chimacum Elementary teacher. “Students actively learn how gear types, bycatch and population dynamics affect a food web, and how to attain sustainable practices. What a brilliant example of modeling the complexities of a marine system for our kids! Bravo PTMSC team!”

Janine Bolling’s Fourth Grade Chimacum Elementary class also participated in the sessions.

Isabelle Spears and Liam Reid pose in front of a whale skull. 
What will the children do when they go home? In their words, “I will protect the Salish Sea from litter.” “Use less plastic.” “Don’t overfish the place.”

If you are concerned about the environment and the health of our planet, the Salish Sea Science Program is one of a number of programs offered by the PTMSC to inform and educate children and adults.

Please visit for more information about how to participate in classes and events, support this and other valuable programs, become a volunteer or citizen scientist, or make a donation.

Text and photos by Sandra Smith, PTMSC volunteer.

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