NEWBURYPORT — Friday’s annual Coastal Science Conference united students, teachers and scientists from across the North Shore to share their findings from Mass Audubon’s Salt Marsh Science Project, which offered creative ideas from Rupert A. Nock Middle School students.
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters was wall-to-wall with people eager to engage in student research done on the Great Marsh — a long, continuous salt marsh in eastern New England, extending from Cape Ann to the southeastern coast of New Hampshire. The Great Marsh includes nearly 30,000 acres of saltwater marsh, mudflats, islands, sandy beaches, rivers, dunes and other bodies of water.
Participants this fall included kids from The Saint’s Academy in Beverly, The Salem Academy in Salem, Rockport Middle School, Ipswich High School, Holton Richmond Middle School in Danvers, and Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School in Danvers. Thirteen Mass Audubon salt marsh science sites were studied, including Joppa Flats.
In addition, 11 seventh-graders from the Nock Middle School — Jack Sherman, Sasha Leydon, Bristol Banovic, Matthew McDougall, Connor Spinney, Matt Hurley, Sophia Franco, Claire Fehlner, Ava Lasson, Kate Keller and Audrey Loughran — have been studying the Great Marsh in class and on location.
Their science teachers, Jessica DeLacey and John Reynolds, noted that students will have seven to 12 field trips during the year for hands-on experience with the topics they study in class.
“In the fall we do a unit that has to do with ecology and the environment, so we do in-class activities, but we also combine it with field trips that we take the kids on outside of school,” said DeLacey, who noted students in science classrooms will ride their bikes to the marsh and paddle kayaks, when warranted. “A lot of that involved us coming to Joppa (Flats).”
Students discussed strategies regarding the invasive species on salt marshes, including phragmites, a type of tall grass found in wetland areas. During the presentation, Spinney said Joppa Flats sprays the phragmites with herbicide to keep the grass from taking over. In addition, Hurley said the greatest spike in phragmites growth occurred from 2012-14.
“The cattails are a native species to the marsh,” said Franco. “The phragmites are interfering with the cattails for many reasons, including sunlight, food, water and space.”
Nock School students also studied the population of mummichogs, a small killifish found near the marsh. The population of mummichogs increases in the wider transect of the marsh, where there is less salt water.
The annual conference, organized by Mass Audubon, serves as the culmination of a season of student work, said Liz Duff, coordinator of the Salt Marsh Science Project. She said the gathering also provides the Newburyport Gulf of Maine Institute’s participants with an opportunity to introduce their science and stewardship projects to a wider audience.
Through the project, students are able to learn concepts in science while contributing to the conservation of important local ecosystems, Duff added. While completing their projects, students had access to more than 23 years of research from previous classes who studied the marsh. With their new data, students shared the results of this year’s field experiences.
“For students who have dedicated their efforts to studying their local marsh, this conference is an opportunity to see how their efforts are connected to the work of other students and other sites, and the larger context of efforts to protect and restore Massachusetts’ salt marshes,” Duff said.
As a possible solution to cutting down on phragmites and putting them toward a different use, Nock students will be launching their phragmites boat project in December, said Reynolds. Reed species, Loughran said, have been a useful building material for humans in cultures around the world.
“One cool use for reeds in Peru is building traditional fishing boats,” Loughran said. “Over the next few weeks, we will be using phragmites to build a boat similar to their design.”
There is a lot of excitement generated among the students when they meet their peers and professional scientists and learn from their work at this conference, Duff said. Reynolds added that studying the marsh will give students an appreciation for local ecosystems.
“One of the main objections in that unit is to get the kids invested in the local salt marsh so they appreciate it and also learn how to protect it and preserve it,” said Reynolds. “It’s all about environment stewardship, so this is a great example of an ecosystem that you can observe.”
Staff writer Amanda Getchell covers Newburyport and Seabrook. Follow her on Twitter @ajgetch.