FORT NORFOLK, Va. – Charlotte Walz loves science and she’s totally in her element among the slime, spat and seaweed by the dock. The fifth grader’s squeals of delight alert her classmates to each brackish discovery. She weaves around the oyster cages, quick to engage in the next task as a member of the cleaning team.
Charlotte, a Norfolk Christian Schools student, was one of approximately 20 who took part in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics - collectively known as STEM - event held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District Oyster Reef Team here, Thursday.
The elementary-age engineers arrived to their “classroom” and divided into four teams: the water-quality team collected the salinity and temperature of the water; the data-collection team recorded observations of the area, weather and oysters; the specimen team identified “critters” found on the oysters and the cleaning team dumped the oysters from the collection bags to the buckets. Each team was comprised of four to five students with a to-do list of scientific processes.
“We do expeditionary learning and this is the expeditionary project for fifth grade,” said Laura Edwards, Norfolk Christian Schools advanced academics teacher. “We try to incorporate the environment, literature, geography, math and science.”
Along with the STEM opportunities, the class is learning the equally-important skills of teamwork, communication and leadership, she said.
The Norfolk District employees orchestrated the oyster-gardening efforts, mirroring the students’ enthusiasm. An upbeat sentiment veiled the weightiness of the loftier purpose for the field trip: to better the children’s educational experience, as well as the world they’ll inherit.
“We’re here to help save the reef,” said Charlotte. “With oysters, they help filter the water. We need them in order to have clean water.”
The 10-year-old acknowledged that some find the oysters tasty, “…but we’re here to help oysters and learn a little bit of science.”
Oyster-restoration initiatives are nearly as common in the Chesapeake area as is the craving to consume the mollusks. But the briny, buttery bivalves also take on the massive task of water filtration as they offer food and habitat to other animals.
Shannon Reinheimer, district operations branch environmental scientist, said that the students come to the Corp’s reef to learn a science lesson that – in addition to the growth and the oyster’s life cycle – includes conservation and environmentalism.
“I hope they learn the important of keeping the river clean and the important of the environmental effect oysters and about protecting specific species and not overharvesting.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office, while native oysters can tolerate many adversities, the population has succumbed to the effects of disease, overharvesting and pollution. Chesapeake Bay oysters are currently noted at 1 percent of historic levels. Therefore in 2011, Norfolk District volunteers hatched the idea of creating a local reef to help increase the oyster population.
By 2012, the 18-month project took shape with 10,000 oysters planted on 120 bushels of oyster shell by 120 volunteers. With the community in mind, the Norfolk District partnered with a science teacher from Seatack Elementary School in Virginia Beach, to take full advantage of the educational opportunities the project provided.
Now, Norfolk District volunteers partner each month with Norfolk Christian Schools for the oyster- gardening efforts, data collection and oyster monitoring.
“We can expose our children to a real-world problem and they can help solve that problem,” Edwards said. “We love that the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District] is willing to host us because it’s such a great opportunity for the kids in a safe environment.
“On a greater scale, we want the students to see how they can really have a positive impact in the community by doing a project like this.”
For more information on helping the Norfolk District restore the native oyster, as well as district STEM programs, go to https://www.facebook.com/NAOonFB/