Although it was still early in the morning, excitement was on vivid display as the energetic Class 6 students stowed their suitcases and climbed aboard a pair of comfortable coach buses. While their teachers took attendance and distributed snacks, the group settled in for a four-and-a-half hour trip to beautiful Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
After weeks of thorough preparation in their Science classes, these students were looking forward to spending several uninterrupted days (October 14-17) immersed in the Cape’s magnificent – and endangered – natural marine environment through enriching educational programming at area institutions, including the renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
Leading up to the Cape Cod trip – a much-loved Middle School tradition – each Class 6 student honed in on a particular area of scientific exploration through the “Be a Scientist” initiative, Science teacher Suzanne Zekonis explained.
Thus, the scholars assumed the vital roles of oceanographer, ecologist, hydrologist, geologist, anthropologist, botanist, aquatic and terrestrial zoologists and climatologist. The essential question “How do human impacts transform ecosystems?” served as a guidepost for their far-reaching, timely studies.
The Class 6 scientists also learned dozens of marine-related vocabulary words to assist in recording and discussing their discoveries like “benthic” (located on the bottom of a body of water or in the bottom sentiments, or referring to bottom-dwelling organisms), “nekton” (all aquatic animals that can swim through the water against currents and navigate at will) and “wrackline” (the line of debris left on a beach by high tide, usually made up of eelgrass, kelp, crustacean shells, feathers, bits of plastic and all kinds of litter).
The carefully designed agenda, which included a host of interactive experiences as well as quiet time for reflection and journaling, featured enthralling sessions at the Marine Life Laboratory Touch Tanks, where students had the chance to feel a variety of live sea creatures like starfish and crabs.
Another highlight occurred on the third day when the students were invited to observe a necropsy of a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the most critically endangered of all seven species of sea turtles. She pointed out that these turtles died as a result of being “cold stunned,” after being exposed to dangerously cold water, another outcome of climate change. Ms. Zekonis noted, with pride, that Chapin was the very first school offered this incredible opportunity, which took place at Wellfleet Bay.
The students, divided into sections comprising a mix of different focus areas, also participated in a salt marsh/tidal flats walk that addressed the effects of climate change; a marine life cruise that examined marine plastics and environmental impacts; a beach exploration outing, which encompassed a wrackline investigation and a nature scavenger hunt. They also cleaned up the beach and analyzed their findings.
Throughout the activities, they took notes and drew sketches in the cross-body art packs they carried with them. The students also designed a series of vibrant posters that illustrated the salient information they acquired.
In the evening, each group of scientists presented their posters and discussed our imperiled environment with their classmates at Cape Cod Sea Camps (CCSC), where they stayed in cozy cabins. On the way back to New York City, they stopped at Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, a wildlife sanctuary in Mystic, Connecticut, to fittingly round out the trip.
“Our students care so much about the planet,” remarked Ms. Zekonis. “They ask thorough, interesting questions and are at the top of their game all the time.”
Asked to express their thoughts about this rewarding adventure, the students were happy to share their reflections. Here are a few examples:
“On the first day, we visited the touch tank, and I held a horseshoe crab. I loved it!”
“I saw a sea anemone that was kind of spiky. It moved really fast. Its eyes were so cute.”
“We watched a turtle get dissected. Its lungs and stomach were very tiny.”
“We got to see awesome animals like these really cool crabs that put algae on their backs to blend in.”
“I got to see a great horned owl named E.T. and a sea raven.”
“I witnessed the tide change. It was so crazy and dramatic.”
“It was a nice balance between science and fun stuff.”
“My favorite part was spending time with the people in my cabin.”
“It was definitely eye-opening learning a lot of new things.”
Photos by Faculty Member Lin Wang