BATH MIDDLE SCHOOL science teacher Monica Wright received the 2017 Eberhard Thiele Environmental Educator Award.

BATH MIDDLE SCHOOL science teacher Monica Wright received the 2017 Eberhard Thiele Environmental Educator Award.

BATH

A hands-on approach to learning has earned Bath Middle School science teacher Monica Wright statewide recognition.

Wright received the Maine Environmental Education Association’s 2017 Eberhard Thiele Environmental Educator Award, presented last week, for her work on ecology inside and outside the classroom.

Her current ecology curriculum really took off in 2013, after reports of the quickly increasing green crab population.

“In 2013, that’s when the green crab population totally exploded and everybody was writing about it, everybody was concerned,” said Wright.

She decided to use the invasive species as part of her ecology curriculum. At the time, Wright studying invasive species was part of her curriculum, with the help of the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust through the Vital Signs project.

Operated by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Vital Signs is a website designed to help middle school students engage in citizen science.

“What students do is they go find if the species is there or not and then it gets published as a find or not a find,” Wright said.

Instead of just reading from a textbook, BMS students are conducting real research and providing data that other scientists can use to address the green crab scourge. She began taking her students on field trips along the coast to start collecting data on the presence of green crabs in the area.

“We started going to some properties in Woolwich and then down to Reid State Park, collecting crabs in traps that first year and also just digging around in the seaweed looking for them,” said Wright. “And then it kind of grew to this next level of the project, where I got a grant from the Maine Natural Resource Council and bought some real crab traps.”

The students now have six crab traps: Three in Georgetown and three at Fort Popham. Since 2013, Wright and other teachers at BMS have collected data and taught their students how to process it. Students catch green crabs, record data about them, dissect them and track their presence along the coast.

“(My favorite part was) doing all the little steps for our posters,” said BMS student Kadance Burden. “We had to do a methods section and introduction and conclusion and results section. I just really like that stuff because it was taking all the data that you already had and making it more scientific,” she added. “It was cool to see how you could put it into different parts.”

While most people would reserve this work for older students, Wright says it works perfectly for middle school science.

“This kind of thinking was always reserved for upper-level high school or college. But the content is so middle school: There’s a bad crab. Let’s count them,” said Wright. “They can learn those skills in minutes, and yet then why not allow people who are just 13 to start thinking analytically. Why does that have to have an age limit?”

“I thought it was going to be boring at first, and not something I would like and pretty hard,” said BMS student Ethan Boynton about the green crab project. “But when I got into it, it’s a hard process, but it got easier as we went and I actually enjoyed it a lot.”

More recently, Wright and other middle school teachers began taking their research efforts with Vital Signs further with a brand-new scientific journal produced by middle schoolers.

“Obviously it’s not to the level a professional scientific journal, because it’s written by middle school students, but it follows the same sort of format,” said Wright.

Her students were the first to submit papers to the new journal without coaching, and they are currently being peer-reviewed by other middle school students. As students from other schools start submitting papers, BMS students will in turn review theirs. The first issue is expected to be published this spring.

“It’s all based on real data,” said Wright. “This is actual stuff that we’ve been collecting.”

Over the course of a school year, BMS seventh graders will watch their initial research on the Maine coast and data processing in the classroom culminate in some of their papers being published in an academic journal. In effect, they will have experienced how science is conducted in the real world, but on a smaller scale.

And while ecology is only one part of the many things Wright teaches in seventh grade, she finds ways to incorporate it into other sections as well. Currently, she’s using an invasive species of red algae to teach her students about cells and microscopes.

“You can only identify (the red algae) through its cellular structure, so that’s why we’re using microscopes,” explained Wright. “I love authentic projects. I can’t do ecology concepts all year, because I have to teach other stuff too. But I have to teach about cells and microscopes and cellular structure.”

She said that using real world research is more engaging for her students than some of the traditional teaching methods. Her students are excited to see their work have a real impact on the world around them.

“Two years ago, my students found the most Downeast version of this bad algae,” said Wright. “People didn’t know it had gone that far.”

Not only are her students learning about invasive species, ecology, cellular structure and microscopes, they’re providing important data to coastal communities. The students’ work helps experts track the spread of the red algae along Maine’s coast.

“This is something I’ve been developing since 2013 and it’s only getting stronger. Now every seventh grader at Bath Middle School is participating in this kind of work,” said Wright. “That’s what makes BMS really special.”


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