NEWBURYPORT — Instead of building sand castles or boogie boarding, a dozen area sixth- and seventh-graders are spending their time at the beach this summer searching for creatures to live in the cold marine tanks at The Joppa Flats Education Center.
Funded by Newburyport's H. Patterson Hale Foundation, which has paid for school field trips to the Joppa Flats Audubon center on the Plum Island Turnpike for the past three years, the Citizen Science Project gives middle school students the opportunity to work as junior volunteers at the center for the summer, where they take care of live tide pool creatures.
Perhaps most importantly, they teach visitors about invasive aquatic creatures, like the Asian shore crab.
"The 'citizen science' angle is the work they do with the Asian shore crab," Lisa Hutchings said. "The thing about invasive aquatic creatures is that most are exotic and non-native. They reproduce much more frequently than native creatures, and out-compete and displace them. The Asian shore crab lays up to 60,000 eggs at a time, up to five times in a season; we went out and collected 22 of them in one hour."
With a temporary collection permit, the "tide pool team" collects invasive aquatic creatures like the Asian crab and the green crab, which is a very common crab in the area, as well as native creatures like the rock crab and hermit crab.
"They've learned to identify all this marine life and how to care for and feed it," Hutchings said. "If anyone wants to find a job in this field, at an aquarium or education center, they have some pretty good training and experience already."
The junior volunteers are taught by Hutchings, as well as two interns, Kelsey Wallace of Connecticut College and Xi Liu of Clark University, who also show them how to maintain the salt water aquarium where the creatures live by checking the temperature and salinity, or saltiness, of the water.
"We maintain the tanks, clean the water and replace the gravel," junior volunteer Eve Beebe, 12, said. "And we take inventory each day and make sure no one has gotten eaten or died."
Whether it's preserving horseshoe crab molts or releasing caterpillars that have molted into moths, the volunteers get hands-on experience each day.
"We learn something new every time we come, like how to open clams," said Gwenna Emerson, 12, of Newburyport.
Gwenna's sister Mairin, also 12, doesn't consider her time at the center "work," because it's fun to her. She said they get paid in knowledge and ecology cruises aboard the Yankee Clipper.
The junior volunteers also lead programs and teach preschool students, as well as adults, at the center's "meet and greet" with the the tide pool creatures.
"Instead of being taught, you're teaching. It's fun to make people aware about the animals," Eve said. "Each one has a different personality — like, the big crab is very cranky and spits in your face, but the green one is really nice, especially toward kids."
Eve, Gwenna and Mairin all agreed that they enjoy teaching others about the animals, which the trio did when they ran the Joppa Flats Education Center booth at Yankee Homecoming.
"The most valuable thing is the way they've been able to take the experience they gained and apply that enthusiasm and knowledge to the center's visitors," Hutchings said.
The commitment requires two hours of work per week, but Hutchings said that most junior volunteers exceed that, often working every day for four hours a day.
"Sometimes they'll call and say 'Lisa, I'm bored — is there anything I can do?"" Hutchings said.
The center also has junior volunteer weekend and after-school programs during the school year. Many of the volunteers come back, like 13-year-old Duncan Huff, who has spent three years working at the center.
"He's really taken on a role of wanting to pursue this as a career after school," Hutchings said.
Eve, Gwenna and Mairin stated that they, too, wanted to make careers in marine biology and zoology.
"Because of where we live, we have a coastal commitment," Hutchings said. "This helps develop a sense of environmental stewardship at an early age. We act as role models for them so they can share their knowledge with future colleagues."