2022 Floating Classrooms Summary

The Severn River Association’s (SRA) environmental educational program, known as The Floating Classroom, provides students a unique, hands-on scientific adventure to study the connection between water quality and oyster restoration efforts in the Severn River. Students enjoy being on the water on the Severn River, appreciate the great outdoors, observe wildlife (osprey, eagles, waterfowl), and then use scientific equipment to learn the basics of a water quality monitoring program, and how all this relates to oyster restoration efforts in the Severn River.   

In 2022, SRA partnered with the City of Annapolis Recreation & Park (ARP) to offer this experience on our scientific research vessel, Sea Girl, to underserved middle-school students. Class size is 4 or 5 students with a chaperone. This program gives students a chance to experience a river-based educational opportunity that they would otherwise never be able to attend due to a lack of access to boats and the river.  In addition to the outdoor experience, the Floating Classroom also challenges students to discuss how human activities (stormwater pollution and climate change challenges) threaten the health of their local waterway, oysters, and their community. 

Special thanks to the Chesapeake Bay Trust and BGE’s Green Grant program for making the Floating Classroom program possible in 2022. 

Environmental Educational Experience

A core lesson offered during the Floating Classroom centers on the importance in science of collecting data to better understand a river’s health. Our students learn how to use professional scientific equipment to track levels of dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, salinity, and clarity. The students do all the data collection and recording themselves under the guidance of SRA’s Habitat Instructor and Program Officer, Tom Guay. 

Students also learn that oysters are a valuable keystone species that not only filter and clean the water, but also create many ecological benefits, such as reefs that support aquatic vitality. The students learn how oysters benefit humans by creating food, jobs, careers, and culture, and they discuss ways they can help protect oysters by reducing stormwater runoff or activities that fuel climate change. 

Finally, the Floating Classroom also raises students’ awareness that they could become the future environmental stewards, scientists, teachers, and that there are other job and career opportunities available to them in the maritime, environmental, and scientific fields.   

To enhance the Floating Classroom curriculum, SRA partnered with educators with Anne Arundel County’s Arlington Echo, Department of Recreation & Parks and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to incorporate many of the elements of the Meaningful Watershed Environmental Experience (MWEE) curriculum.

Floating Classroom Program Details 

Led by SRA’s Habitat Instructor, Tom Guay, the students learn key scientific lessons about oyster ecology and water quality. They learn how to measure these levels using a computerized underwater probe and hand-held computer (see images below). This leads to a discussion of why stormwater pollution is one of the greatest threats to oysters in the Chesapeake Bay and the Severn River.  

Lesson: Stormwater pollution floods the river with too much nitrogen nutrient pollution that leads to creation of algae blooms which in turn lead to the creation of dead zones, or areas of low/no oxygen, in the Severn River that suffocate crabs and fish. 

 

For this discussion, the students collect water quality data from an oyster reef that is at the foot of a major bridge on Rt. 50, which is always full of traffic burning fossil fuels that contribute to the nitrogen pollution that so harms the river and oysters. 

This gives the students the unique opportunity to witness pollution-causing activity first hand and see directly how the pollution enters the river. This discussion also reviews how the burning of fossil fuels produces greenhouse gasses that cause climate change. The Habitat Instructor also challenges students to think of ways they can help reduce these pollution threats.  

The Driving Question For Students 

A key MWEE element that is part of the Floating Classroom curriculum is the “driving question.” This is a teaching aid that triggers discussion of the day’s activity. In this case, students are asked: “What is the relationship between a healthy oyster reef and water quality conditions in the Severn River?”

To answer this question, students collect the water quality data and discuss the day’s findings and then relate the data to a discussion of conditions that threaten oysters (low-oxygen levels, low salinity, sediment that could bury them, predators, diseases). 

Students are instructed about how much oxygen oysters and other creatures need in the water to thrive, and learn two key numbers: 

  1. Oxygen levels higher than 5 mg/L are good, and  
  2. Oxygen levels under 2 mg/L are “dead zones” that suffocate fish and crabs.

Then students are asked to consider where the pollution that causes these things comes from and finally, they discuss actions they (and society) can take to reduce pollution threats. 

Students usually discover that water quality is good at the oyster reef. The students then visit a nearby creek to repeat the process where, unguided by the Habitat Instructor, they see for themselves that there are dead zones (areas of very little oxygen) inside the creeks. They usually spot this themselves and excitedly say, “Hey, there’s a dead zone here!” This opens the opportunity to discuss reasons why there are such large differences in water quality between a creek and the river itself. 

We also take the opportunity to highlight the wildlife on the river, usually a mix of great blue herons, osprey, ducks, kingfisher, eagles, and sea nettles. The students have the opportunity to see the oysters themselves, and all the creatures on an oyster reef (forage fish, mud crabs, worms, barnacles) when we pull up a sample cage of oysters from the reef. 

This generates a mixture of oohs and aahs. All are surprised to see that there is so much life. Some students keep their distance with a yuck reaction while others are fascinated with the creatures and want to hold them, especially the mud crabs.   

Every Student Has A Job To Do

Once on location, the Habitat Instructor presents another overview of the water quality monitoring procedure, explains the oxygen and salinity levels that oysters enjoy and  assignments are handed out. Every student has a job to do! They’re 100% involved in the collection, recording, and analysis of the data they collected for dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, salinity, and clarity levels.  

There are four jobs and each student gets one of four roles to: 

  • control depth of the water quality monitoring probe and verify out loud how deep the probe is, 
  • read the data levels out loud so all can hear, 
  • deploy a Secchi disk to measure the clarity distance and report the finding aloud (see image at right), and 
  • record the data on a datasheet. 

At the completion of each profile (at the bottom, middle and surface of the river), the Habitat Instructor leads students in a discussion of the results and asks the first question: “Are the oysters happy today with conditions on the reef?” 

They usually all join in with a collective “Yes”, which then prompts the Habitat Instructor to ask the students: “How do you know they’re happy?” Students can then point to the data they just collected to support their answer. 

Smiles All Around

The greatest success of the Floating Classroom is watching the students realize that science, environmental studies, and learning about oysters and other wildlife is fun and interesting.   

The best feedback for this year’s program came not in words, but in action from one of our campers, J’Adore. She repeatedly returned for the program and each time brought new groups of her friends to join in for a Floating Classroom experience. On one of her return trips to the Floating Classroom, J’Adore volunteered right away for the Team Leader role to record the data, saying excitedly, “Let’s get to work recording!” 

A key secret to our success is the Team Approach. This gives each student a specific job to do and helps them appreciate how each role is part of a process to understand life on an oyster reef. 

For more information, contact SRA’s Program Officer, Tom Guay, at: taguay@severnriver.org