Saturday, July 30, 2011

Green Eggs & Sand - Part X

            The next morning some of us are up at 4:30AM.  Its been raining hard all night and the looming clouds overhead are still dark with moisture and the prospects of yet another rainstorm.  Although most of the camp is still asleep, many GE&S participants are crawling out of their cabins and into a caravan of cars for a short ride to nearby Reed’s Beach and the prospects of a mass spawning.
            On the way, we rub our eyes, sip carafes of warm coffee, and share anecdotes while bouncing along the back roads of rural New Jersey.  One young lady tells the story of a memorable day at nearby Higbee Beach – a well-known birding spot in the Cape May area.  She had gone there to view some of the local shorebirds and while walking along the beach she began to notice that nobody was wearing any clothes (unbeknownst to her, Higbee Beach was, at that time, a nude sunbathing beach).  She figured, “What the heck,” and continued down the beach keeping her eyes peeled for various species of feathered friends.
            The day was hot, she was sweaty, and so she finally decided “When in Rome….”  She doffed all her clothes at the far end of the beach and leaped into the water to cool down.  While splashing in the surf, a man happened to walk down the beach…a very naked man…and sat down next to her clothes.  He waited (“Oh boy, a new recruit,” he may have been thinking to himself.)!  The young lady, now embarrassed, stayed in the water as long as she could – her skin taking on the consistency of a well-seasoned prune.
            The naked man did not leave (I’m no authority, but perhaps perpetually nude people are more patient than the rest of us).  Finally, now completely chilled, the young lady decided to exit the water and pick up her clothes (first exchanging greetings with the man as is only proper when two naked strangers meet each other for the first time on a New Jersey beach«).  After a few pleasantries (“Hi, you new here?”  “Yeah, I guess.”  “Would you be interested in playing a game of volleyball?”  “No, not really – thanks anyway.”) she retired behind an appropriately placed sand dune where she quickly re-robed.  She never did see the birds she had come for, but I think she would agree that there is a lot of interesting wildlife along the beaches of the Garden State.
            Upon our arrival at Reed’s Beach we discover an incalculable army of seagulls overhead - squawking like crazy.  The gulls, like us, are awaiting the arrival of the horseshoe crabs and all their eggs.  Although it’s mid-May the beach is a cold and windy expanse of sand filled with black and white bodies bobbing and weaving along the shoreline.  Gulls are dancing along the edge of the waves fighting for territory or guarding the precious tiny plots they have secured in anticipation of arriving crabs.  Birds are also bobbing just beyond the wave line as long strands of seaweed ebb and flow across the surface.  To the dismay of the birds, and the small group of crab-ologists watching this morning, there is not a single horseshoe crab in sight on this vast and lonely beach. 
            Part of the beach is cordoned off with long lines of yellow rope.  Behind this artificial and presumably temporary barrier is a most prominent sign:
          Please stop here.  Please view shorebirds from the designated viewing area.  This is an important shorebird feeding and resting area during May and June.  Shorebirds stop in Delaware Bay to regain weight before continuing their migration north to Arctic nesting grounds.  They must feed almost constantly to survive, migrate and rest.  This is a critical   shorebird beach.  Please help protect it.  Harassing shorebirds is illegal and subject to prosecution and fines under NJSA23:2A-6,10.
Along with all the legal dictates there are illustrations of four shorebirds including the Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, and Semi-palmated Sandpiper.
            We wait…patiently…for the crabs to surface.  But this is not to be their day.  The surf is rough, the morning is rougher, and the conditions are less than ideal for crabs to spawn.  Consequently, they remained in the protective waters of Delaware Bay.  Perhaps their yearly pilgrimage over the centuries has imbued them with a bit of knowledge – a bit of knowledge far superior to the early morning remnants possessed by the dozen of us wrapped in coats and shielded from the offshore winds whipping across the water.  In many ways, they were far wiser than we.
            We return to our cabins, grab our gear, and head back to The Wetlands Institute.  After breakfast we are guided through a rapid series of workshops on horseshoe crab management, environmental concerns, and shoreline configurations in Delaware Bay.  We gather up a vast collection of maps, diagrams, posters, CDs, LAL vials, brochures, horseshoe crab molts and other classroom materials.  Business cards are exchanged, e-mails are traded, and goodbyes are said.  Like the crabs we learned about this weekend; we all migrate to another place, another shore.

« Since New Jersey is one of the most over-regulated states in the country, I strongly suspect that there must be some sort of law, rule, regulation, or statute somewhere in the state’s legal system which emphatically stipulates that “…when two naked people shall encounter one another on a beach within the confines of the state, said naked people shall greet each other in an appropriate manner using either their hands (e.g. handshake, “fisting”) or appropriate verbal exchange (“My, that’s a nice tan you have,” or “Hi, I don’t think I’ve seen you before!”).  Said naked people shall not greet each other with language or body parts not previously approved by the New Jersey Department of Beach Decorum…yadda, yadda, yadda.”

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Green Eggs & Sand - Part IX

Later that evening, we all strap on our boots and waders, pile into several vans and head over to Kimball’s Beach – a narrow stretch of shoreline bordering Delaware Bay.  There, we are divided into three separate groups and are provided with some hands-on learning experiences by three Limulus experts.
            Jane Brockmann leads us in a mini-lesson on the spawning behavior of horseshoe crabs.  We watch as she pulls a most reluctant pair (who are heavy into amplexis) from the water to show us their undersides (and also their indignity).  Holding the joined crabs in both hands, Jane describes the various anatomical processes these crabs are undertaking.  It is quite obvious that her subjects are less than eager about this seaside “Show and Tell,” and are doing everything in their power to escape her clutches.  But, Jane is persistent and we are treated to a “hands-on” experience that is much more authentic, and certainly much more exciting, than any found in the pages of a stale textbook.
            We move to an area just off the beach where Heidi Hanlon of the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Service gives us a lesson on horseshoe crab tagging procedures.  Heidi lectures on how tags are fastened.  She demonstrates using another very reluctant crab – one who is trying her best to wriggle out of Heidi’s hands (apparently horseshoe crabs are not natural exhibitionists – they have to be coxed into this new role).  Heidi shows how a small hole is drilled into the trailing edge of a crab’s shell and a tag with a “Christmas Tree” pin is quickly inserted into the hole.  Heidi uses a standard Black and Decker rechargeable drill with a specialized drill bit to demonstrate the procedure.  The drill bit is outfitted with a rubber stopper to avoid drilling through both sides of the carapace.
            Each horseshoe crab tag has a number to identify the crab as well as an address or telephone number which the “finder” can use to report vital data.  In some cases, people who report a tagged crab will receive information on the project as well as specific crab data.  A toll-free number is also inscribed on the tag.  The tags also provide scientists with valuable information relative to a crab’s migratory pattern over a period of several years, where and when it spawns, what side(s) of the Bay it tends to inhabit, the distances it travels from year to year, and population counts in order to determine any annual statistical fluctuations in numbers.  You may have a small notebook in the glove compartment of your car that keeps track of similar information during family driving ventures.
            Our third station features the “Grand Old Man of Horseshoe Crabs” – Carl Shuster.  Shuster is plopped into a beach chair as we gather around him in a semi-circle at the edge of the incoming tide.  He is in his element.  With a very large male in his hands he proceeds to tell us about the crab’s unique shell shape.  “For most of them you can draw an outline – a perfect circle,” he says.  “These creatures are architecturally strong – they can do all of their life functions – breathe, eat, spawn, locomotion…anything you can think of…can be done underneath the shell – completely protected.”
            We are a rapt and eager audience as Shuster continues, “Scientists seem to think that the ancestral type of horseshoe crabs is trilobites.  The trilobites superficially look a lot like horseshoe crabs.  However, Limulus, from DNA studies, goes back about 20-35 million years.  The Asiatic species are even younger.  In terms of reproduction Limulus has, what would appear to be, an advancement – a multitude of males.  All the Asiatic species have single male/female mating and if there are multiple males they are in tandem – like a railroad train and they have two pairs of claspers.  The first pair in the Asiatic crabs, instead of being strong like in the American species, are weaker, but the Asiatic species are the ones that grab the female crab first.  The second pair of claspers are bigger and stronger.”
            We are eager students, but no less eager than our instructor when he says, “To me that’s pretty fascinating stuff.  If there’s anything a creature can do this thing can do it.  The only thing it can’t do is back up.  It’s only option is to move forward.  It’s the only thing I’ve found that they really can’t do.  You have to realize that what you see today will never happen again.  That’s how complex this crazy thing is.  The environment is just as important as the animal.”
            Exhausted, tired, and worn out we head back to the campgrounds for a well-deserved good night’s sleep.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Green Eggs & Sand - Part VIII

            The next morning we are transported to the Cape May County Mosquito Control building for the day’s activities (There is a wedding scheduled at the Wetlands Institute which has preempted our workshops).  Over a simple breakfast of coffee, bagels, and cornflakes I chat with Janet Mead, a 7th grade teacher at Williamstown (NJ) Middle School.
            “I want my students to know how horseshoe crabs are related to their daily lives – that there are medicines derived from these creatures that affect their lives.  I want them to get a sense of pride knowing something that no one else knows.  I also want my students to be scientifically literate.  When reading something in the popular press I want them to be able to relate it to something else.  I want them to make connections – to open their eyes to something else.”
            Janet is absolute when she points out that it is always a challenge, particularly with a large group of students, to get them involved in hands-on activities or to even get them out of the school building and into the real world where science takes place.  “Real science is not book learning…it’s doing science.  We’re fortunate at our school – we have a walking path, a pond, a worm bin, and a butterfly garden – so students can get some first-hand experiences.”
            Janice, like so many other teachers, feels the need to connect her students to something that matters.  She is concerned with the over-emphasis on standardized tests that reward memorization at the expense of authentic learning in authentic situations.  She celebrates the GE&S program as “…a way for [teachers] to promote [thinking] skills in a real-world problem-solving way.”  For Janice, it’s a matter of making connections.  She believes kids need to see the relationships that exist between ecology, conservation, cells and a dozen other elements in order to be scientifically literate citizens.  “This is a program we can offer kids that moves beyond classroom learning into an application of that learning in the real world.  I’m excited about those possibilities.”

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Green Eggs & Sand - Part VII

Back at the GE&S workshop in New Jersey on that first night, we are engaged in a Horseshoe Crab Molt Lab exercise in which we must identify some of the anatomy and physiology of various (now dead) horseshoe crabs.  This is a hands-on exercise in observational skills, classification, sexing, and measuring.  At each of eight stations we are asked to examine a now-dead horseshoe crab and respond to a series of exploratory questions.
            I am paired with Tracee Panetti who has been teaching science at the high school level for ten years.  Although she’s lived near the shore, she’s not all that familiar with horseshoe crabs.  She sees the GE&S workshop as a unique way of getting her students interested in large environmental issues as well as local concerns.  She wants to introduce students to the ways in which horseshoe crabs are really a part of their everyday lives.  She’s excited about the prospects and takes voluminous notes as we do the eight stations on the lab exercises. 
            Tracee tells me that she wants to use horseshoe crabs as a comparison of different animals - a comparison of an invertebrate to a vertebrate (shorebirds) and then also learn about the interaction between the two – bringing a lot of the information together.  She is amazed by all the interactions between the two.  But what she finds particularly exciting is the migration of the birds and how horseshoe crabs have been misused.  She’s emphatic when she tells me that the materials she’s gathering at the workshop will help her make that comparison; specifically that her students will be able to do those comparisons.
            I’m curious as to how her students are going to react to that information as opposed to how they might react to the typical science curriculum.  An enormous smile crosses her face as she tells me, “I think they’re going to be fascinated.  What we are doing tonight is showing a lot about how these animals developed.  [Students] will be able to learn about creatures they may have heard about, but not paid much attention to.  They’re going to be much more fascinated by this.  They’ll begin to see how important biology is – becoming aware of how biology can influence decisions – politically and environmentally.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Green Eggs and Sand - Part VI

           Gary shares how he and the others are continuing to work at making GE&S better.  They’re currently working on total revision of the program and an updating of the curriculum.  One of the concerns they are addressing is the program’s exclusive emphasis on the Delaware Bay.  Now, they are attempting to make the workshop more regional as well as a curriculum that can be used up and down the Atlantic seaboard.  They’ve added lots of new lessons, made improvements in current lessons, and revamped the design.  Obviously, the hope is to provide more workshop offerings for more teachers along the east coast.  Eventually, materials will be in place that will give students more opportunities to see the various interactions in their own region and how those interactions impact not only the specific region, but their specific lives. 
            It’s early afternoon in the late fall and the sun is slowly lowering itself behind the salt marsh that rings the AREC.  The temperature is beginning to dip, but the intensity of Gary’s remarks never wavers.  He is as passionate about this program as you would be if your son hit a home run in the Little League City Championship.  Indeed, Gary is a proud father of GE&S.
            I tell him I’m interested in anecdotes about “graduates” of the Green Eggs & Sand program.  What have they done, what have their students done, and how has the program transformed their lives?  Barely coming up for air he tells me, “There was a high school student from Delaware who did a science fair project about the biomedical use of horseshoe crabs.  In fact, she did some experiments that we adapted for use in the curriculum that allowed teachers to use the LAL material that comes from horseshoe crabs that pharmaceutical companies use for screening their medicines.  She did a science fair project which we later adapted to the curriculum and bio-medical companies donated thousands of LAL vials to the workshop.  This girl eventually went on to University of Delaware and ended up being a marine biology graduate student as a result of that interest.”
            Gary then proceeds to provide one of those anecdotes that makes the entire experience so rewarding for those involved.  He tells me that the same girl eventually petitioned to have the horseshoe crab named as the state marine animal of Delaware.  While one of the GS&S workshops was taking place the governor of Delaware announced that the horseshoe crab had received that official distinction.  The young girl had been invited to the press conference and afterwards had an opportunity to attend the GS&S workshop, meet some of her heroes (Carl Shuster) and accept the congratulations of all the educators attending the workshop.  It was truly an event to remember.