Growing Green Hands
Cape students learn how to protect their fragile coastal environment with hands-on activities.
When teacher Christine Fawkes’ first grade class gathers in the hollow of windswept dunes on Cape Cod’s Sandy Neck Beach one bright summer morning, it marks the culmination of a season’s worth of work. Since springtime, these students from Barnstable-West Barnstable Elementary School and others schools around the state have been working with the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary to rear endangered, thumbnail-sized eastern spadefoot toads. Today, these excited seven-year-olds reach into aquariums, gently scoop more than 230 of the species into their hands, and happily watch the little toads hop away into the sandy wilderness.
With its range of freshwater, marine, and upland habitats, Cape Cod provides a living classroom for students to study and learn about the fragility of this coastal environment. More and more, schools are teaming up with local science and nature organizations to encourage even the youngest children to be aware of the world around them, starting with their own backyard of Cape Cod. From partnerships with groups including the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, Mass Audubon sanctuaries, and the Cape Cod National Seashore, innovative teachers are bringing science alive, forging lasting connections with the community and placing the local environment in greener hands.
Spadefoot toads, which are threatened in Massachusetts due to a significantly declining habitat, are known to be found in only 32 places around the state, including the Province Lands at the Cape Cod National Seashore, and on Sandy Neck. “They prefer a habitat they can burrow into,” says Ian Ives, director of both Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Cummaquid and the Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary in East Falmouth. “They spend almost all of their existence under the sand.” Records of spadefoots also exist in the boggy Ashumet area, but the tiny toads haven’t been seen there for 15 to 20 years, according to Ives, who has studied the records at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Mass Audubon and its student partners are hoping to turn things around for the state’s rarest toads by reintroducing them to their native habitats. Ives says, “This is an opportunity to head-start the toads, learn how to raise them, and bring them back to their natural habitat.”
Ives says that working with the schools is a natural fit. The students feed the tadpoles fish, rabbit food, and bugs and create aquarium habitats with a pool and a mounded beach to match each stage of growth. For instance, the kids first give the herbivore tadpoles lots of water and fish flakes, but as soon as the tadpoles start metamorphosis, students add wingless fruit flies and ants to the amphibians’ habitat. “It got the kids thinking not just about the endangered toads, but it also opened their eyes to other endangered animals,” says Catherine Scibelli of Barnstable, whose daughter Alessandra took part in this project. “We live in such a beautiful spot; I think it’s great they become aware of everything they have around them and bring that into the classroom.”
Such invaluable lessons from the land are being taught at other Cape Cod schools including the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Orleans. Paul Niles, an eighth grade science teacher and the founder and associate director of this public school for grades six, seven, and eight, says having students understand the basic ecosystems on Cape Cod was a principal goal when the school opened in 1994. When the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster became interested in developing school programs a few years back, the two institutions formed a partnership.
During the year, all sixth-graders from the school join naturalists from the museum, teachers, and parent volunteers to visit the area’s four major ecosystems: kettle ponds, uplands, barrier beaches, and salt marshes. They measure the salinity of salt marshes, examine pond water teeming with microscopic organisms, and meet with guest lecturers among other activities.
“We walked through the boardwalk on the marsh and learned about the special perfume that the flies like,” recalls current eighth-grader Amanda Carreiro of Harwich. They also made trail guides for the museum. Amanda’s mother, Andrea Higgins, leads nature hikes and journaling seminars at the school, activities that complement the projects with the museum. “We went walking in these wonderful spots like Nickerson Park and the National Seashore, and we wrote about them in our journals. I was so filled with hope after reading these journal writings—it was really exciting,” she says. “If they’ve fallen in love with an area, they’ll take care of it.”
The site visits and seminars have sparked enormous interest in environmental clubs offered at the school, including a chapter of Roots & Shoots, a global sustainability network founded by Primatologist and Environmentalist Dr. Jane Goodall. Last year, the Cape Cod Lighthouse Roots & Shoots Club received the Middle School Energy Education School of the Year Award from the National Energy Education Development Project for co-hosting an energy fair at the Museum of Natural History. Nauset Regional High School and Eastham Elementary School’s ecology clubs also participated in the project. “We educated families and people around the Cape on how to save energy,” Amanda says. “And, we got to meet Jane Goodall at the Roger Williams Zoo (in Providence) and present our energy project to her.”
“Society has been good about nurturing adolescents’ impulses toward athletic and artistic pursuits, but not so good with science and the environment,” Niles says. “Here, those science and environment muscles have been exercised.” What’s more, while multiple factors may be responsible, the middle school’s collaboration with the Museum of Natural History and abundant hands-on conservation activities have coincided with higher test scores, particularly in science.
The Outer Cape’s natural beauty and the prominent science community drew John Hanlon to call Provincetown his home after moving from Framingham, Massachusetts. Hanlon, who teaches science for the town’s fourth through 11th graders, spends his summers working as a park ranger for the National Park Service, a job that has placed him at the Cape Cod National Seashore for many years. This summer job has inspired Hanlon to bring his students to dunes, marshes, woodlands and cranberry bogs during the school year to teach them science lessons on location, rather than sitting at a desk. It has also opened doors for his students to conduct internships and projects in the community.
Hanlon and his students work with the scientists of the National Seashore on projects like mapping invasive species and conducting controlled burns in Truro and Wellfleet, experiences that have helped the students learn about wildfire, biodiversity, and creating new habitats. The students have also joined the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies to study plankton and investigate the ever-changing shoreline. “If there’s a dead whale that just washed up, we can get in the bus and go look at it,” Hanlon says.
Hanlon asserts that getting students out and about to care for the environment has also strengthened their connection with the community. After seeing students testing water in Provincetown Harbor, one resident was inspired to contribute a grant so the students could grow clams, which they then donated to a soup kitchen.
Provincetown High School graduate Leo Rose, who grew up hunting and fishing with his father in Truro, says science projects with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and an internship with the National Seashore propelled him to pursue a degree in environmental law enforcement at Unity College in Maine with long-term plans to become a park ranger. “I learned how environmentally friendly the national park is,” he says.
Hanlon says the class expeditions cultivate an appreciation for the outdoors that other students in town never had the chance to develop. “The science is one part, but just getting outside to the trails—some kids never get that,” he says. “For many kids, school is not a positive experience; but this is something to look forward to.”
Protecting this fragile landscape and learning from those on the front lines of conservation work are real-life lessons in thinking globally and acting locally. While environmental challenges such as climate change can seem overwhelming, students on Cape Cod are learning that they can make a positive difference, one land-use policy, one habitat, and one tiny endangered toad at a time.
Susan Spencer is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Whitinsville and Brewster, MA. She contributes frequently to Cape Cod Life Publications.
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