Eye-to-eye with mummichogs

CBF immerses local teachers in Bay ecology
Tara Humphrey (right) photographs a fish held by mentor/teacher Beth Renalds. (Patty Kruszewski/Henrico Citizen)

Just how far will a middle school science teacher go in pursuit of becoming a better educator?

For two teachers from Holman Middle School, the desire to get better at their jobs prompted them to endure bug bites, 90-plus temperatures and primitive living conditions, and took them to a remote island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, where they spent nights in rustic cabins without air conditioning, showers, or many of the comforts of home.

As an added bonus, they endured – or enjoyed, in some cases – numerous eyeball-to-eyeball encounters with scaly, slimy water creatures.

But both Tara Humphrey and Erin Cutchin will agree that the week they spent as “Teachers on the Bay” enhanced their understanding of ecological and life science concepts in a way that books never could -- and both were confident the course would pay dividends for their students as well.

Led by educators from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), an advocacy and educational organization dedicated to restoring the bay’s water quality, Teachers on the Bay provides five days of intensive, hands-on field learning about the ecology of the bay, its watershed and its tributaries.

Humphrey and Cutchin joined a dozen or so teachers from Virginia and Maryland who spent their first two nights at St. Margaret’s School in Tappahannock – devoting their days to exploring the Rappahannock River by boat, testing water quality and observing wildlife and their evenings to in-depth discussions of water quality, how the bay was formed and the challenges it confronts.

The final two nights of the program were spent at the Fox Island Study Center, located on the edge of a salt marsh island just a few miles from Crisfield, Md. There the teachers enjoyed an early morning marsh walk, additional water testing, catching and studying crabs, and visits to Tangier and Smith islands.

Buds, thorns and mummichogs
On the second morning of the course, before heading upriver, the teachers gathered to discuss what they had learned so far. Each was asked to share a “rose,” or a surprising nugget of knowledge; a “bud,” something he or she wanted to learn more about; and a “thorn” – a challenging aspect of the trip.

Many of the teachers readily admitted that their “thorn” was squeamishness, and a general lack of enthusiasm for handling live fish and other water creatures. But most were determined to overcome their reluctance. One teacher drew laughter as she grimaced and said, “I’m going to stick my hand in the bucket and touch something today!” Humphrey, on the other hand, anticipated that her thorn would be sleeping on Fox Island – without air conditioning and “real showers.”

Both Cutchin and Humphrey agreed on their rose: the sighting of numerous bald eagles. Humphrey estimated that they had spotted about 15 gliding along a ridge, and also had seen owls on the side of a cliff.

“I didn’t realize there could be so many [eagles] in one area,” Cutchin said, and expressed amazement that some birds had been banded decades ago. Another teacher marveled at the aerial movements of the eagles and osprey as they dove for fish, comparing their moves to those of the famous Blue Angels.

Cutchin noted that the “buds” she wanted to explore in greater detail were salt wedge dead zones and water testing. “I expected nitrogen levels to be higher,” she said of the first-day results.

For Humphrey, who takes her advanced life science students on the CBF day-long boat trips, the bud was learning to apply what she was learning to her sixth grade science class lessons.

Later that morning, the teachers rendezvoused with a boat manned by staff from Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries, who treated them to a demonstration of electrofishing and its uses in sampling fish populations.

“We watched them shock fish,” Humphrey noted later in her journal, “and then bring them over to our boat. I happily held my first large blue catfish.” Among other fish the teachers studied before returning them to the river were gizzard shad, eastern silvery minnow, pumpkin seed sunfish, white perch, mummichogs, and darters.

Humphrey wrote later that she also enjoyed the experience of crabbing on the third day.

“What a thrill for me to do crab pots for the first time!” she said. “We caught 209 crabs and threw back all females and undersized males after we studied them. . . I really loved getting my hands dirty and fishy all in the name of science.” The next day, after visiting Smith Island, the teachers used a drag net and counted crabs in the area, while learning about crab life cycles and how to distinguish male from female.

On the final day of the week, the teachers visited Tangier Island and dined at a restaurant there.

“We were able to visit a crab shack on the water,” said Humphrey, “and talk with the mayor of Tangier. I had always wanted to visit Tangier, so I was very happy to have this opportunity to see it through the natives’ eyes.”

The teachers spent the rest of the final day brainstorming applications for the classroom and considering the question, “What [and how] can we teach our students to protect and improve the Bay through behaviors in our homes and communities?”

Fond memories and student gains
For Humphrey, participating in the Teachers on the Bay course was a natural outgrowth of the CBF day-long boat trips she takes with her advanced life science classes, which leave from Hopewell and travel out on the bay in February or March.

“A lot of these students have never been on a boat, and never touched a fish. We do the [water] tests, and it makes them feel like scientists,” said Humphrey, noting the excitement that the hands-on exercises inspire in her middle schoolers. “That’s what I like about life science; it’s so relatable.”

Humphrey said she was also urged to take the course by a friend who recommended it, and she thought the experience would help her better prepare students for their own field trips.

“I have to admit I was skeptical at first because it involved a bit of roughing it,” she said. “But I figured I could endure a few nights of camping conditions.”

Humphrey (above) now plans to conduct a unit on the bay that centers around water quality and the factors affecting it, and to lead a lesson that will impress upon the students their individual responsibility for the health of the bay.

“I want them to understand,” she said, “that what they do at home does have an effect on the watershed.”

Citing among her favorite memories the chance to wade in the bay, bait crab pots and stroll Tangier and Smith Islands talking to residents, Humphrey said she will always treasure the experience – and use what she learned to her students’ advantage.

“The amount of information that I learned in five days is staggering to me,” she said. “I hope to bring what I learned into the classroom with the same enthusiasm.”

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