A Billion Oysters For The New York Harbor
The smell of oysters permeated the air on Pier 15 in the South Street Seaport. The odor was pungent, briny and distinctive. "That's nothing," said Charles Guillot-Marquet, a junior at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School. "You should smell it when we have hundreds of oyster shells from restaurants!"
The students from the New York Harbor School collect these shells, clean them and use them as foundation reefs in the harbor, giving other oysters something to which they can attach as they breed.
In pre-Colonial times, trillions of oysters lived in New York Harbor, filtering the water and riding it of pollutants. One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Oyster reefs provided habitat for hundreds of species of fish and invertebrates and helped to protect the salt marshes that ringed the harbor from the fierce onslaught of ocean waves. But New York Harbor's oysters were destroyed by over-harvesting and disease.
The Billion Oyster Project, launched by the New York Harbor School, is beginning to bring them back.
The New York Harbor School students and some of their oysters were on Pier 15 as part of a press conference on Oct. 30 announcing a $5 million, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to create a hands-on, marine science and stewardship curriculum for New York City middle school students. The goal is to have a billion oysters living in New York Harbor by 2034 and to enlist middle school and high school students and their teachers in the process of oyster restoration. This will provide numerous opportunities for scientific inquiry and learning.
New York Harbor is "the best possible place for teaching and learning in the entire world," said Murray Fisher at the press conference. Fisher founded the New York Harbor School and is currently president of the New York Harbor Foundation. "The way that we restore New York Harbor and make it the best place for teaching and learning in the city is by developing curriculum and pushing it into the schools," he said.
A consortium of institutions will be engaged in this work under the National Science Foundation grant. Some of them have already embarked on it, even without the substantial funding that the NSF grant now provides.
The partners include Pace University, the New York City Department of Education, Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the New York Academy of Sciences, the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School and the New York Harbor Foundation, the University of Maryland, the New York Aquarium, the River Project, Smart Start E.C.S. and Good Shepherd Services.
Dr. Lauren Birney, an assistant professor at Pace University, is the lead principal investigator with responsibility for managing the grant, supervising the partners, overseeing the research and maintaining a common vision and progression toward the project's goals.
Twelve middle schools are already participating in the Billion Oyster Project. Teachers volunteered their time to be part of the program, in addition to their other teaching responsibilities. Now, says Birney, training will be more systematic and "robust." It will take place at Pace and in the field, with a stipend and course credit for those who participate. Up to 60 middle schools can be accommodated during the three years of the NSF grant. Like those already in the program, all will be Title 1 schools, meaning that they serve at-risk and low-income students.
Schools will be chosen to participate in the Billion Oyster Project based on teacher interest and capacity, and a supportive administration.
By the end of the three-year grant if not before, Pace expects to have a program in place that will be suitable for roll-out to other New York City schools and to schools outside of New York City.
The New York Harbor School, which was founded 12 years ago in Bushwick, Brooklyn and is now domiciled on Governors Island, has led the way in this work. Students at the school have been restoring oyster reefs for more than four years.
The school offers six career and technical education programs in marine-related fields of which Aquaculture is one. All prepare students for entry-level jobs as well as for admission to college.
"Ever since I was little, I wanted to help make a difference in the world," said Ariel Ron, a junior at the New York Harbor School. Speaking confidently in front of the audience at the press conference, which included New York Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, Ron went on to say, "When I discovered the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, I knew it would give me the opportunity to make that dream a reality."
She said that her work in the Aquaculture program had taught her how to "properly care for reef organisms and to value the role that they play in the New York Harbor ecosystem."
After the formal part of the press conference, as she stood on Pier 15, with an oyster in one hand and measurement calipers in the other, she said that she lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, and that she spends two hours a day commuting to and from school. "That's not so bad!" she said.
She hopes to go to college and to continue studies that revolve around animals and organisms in a marine environment.
"At the Billion Oyster Project, we know that authentic, place-based, inquiry-rich learning opportunities do not come at the expense of teaching standards, preparing students for exams or success in college," Pete Malinowski, director of the Billion Oyster Project had said at the press conference. "Rather, it is through these authentic and empowering learning opportunities that we activate young minds and generate curiosity in the classroom. The goal is to create students that are striving to understand difficult concepts, rather than going through the motions of school."
- Terese Loeb Kreuzer