For the last several years, some Calvert County high school students have gotten a big-picture view about how their everyday activities affect local waterways by studying some of the Bay's tiniest organisms —plankton.
The county sits on a peninsula that separates the Chesapeake and Maryland's Patuxent River, so the students are surrounded by green water much of the year.
By conducting experiments such as growing test tubes of algae using nutrients extracted from schoolyard soils, they begin to learn how actions on the land contribute to the water's greenish tinge.
"My first reaction was, phytoplankton?" Calvert High School science teacher Chuck Gustin recalled thinking when he first attended a teacher workshop explaining the program three years ago. By the end of the workshop, he was a believer. "When I look at it, it makes real sense," he said. "It gets them involved with a real-world problem, which is plankton blooms."
Few organisms respond more directly to nutrient pollution than phytoplankton. The PLANS program, for Plankton And Nutrient Studies for the Chesapeake Bay, was developed by plankton scientists from nearby Morgan State University Estuarine Research Center and educators from the nonprofit Society for Ocean Sciences to help give students a hands-on lesson for growing algae, a type of phytoplankton. While other programs engage students in growing fish or underwater grasses, PLANS goes straight to the Bay's core problem by teaching students about eutrophication — the process by which water quality is degraded through growth of nutrient-fueled algae blooms.
"I think it was important to do plankton because it is so important to the Bay and it is not a charismatic megafauna," said Kelly Clark, director of the Morgan State estuarine lab. "That is the challenge of environmental education: to take difficult issues and make them accessible."
It was a natural outgrowth for the lab, which has been a longtime focal point for Bay phytoplankton research. "It's been the center of our universe," said Stella Sellner, a scientist at the lab. "We've worked so long with plankton and Bay nutrient enrichment issues we thought it was time to get students involved with what's happening."
The program has two components. Advanced placement and honors students go onto the water with scientists from the lab to observe how nutrients reach the water from different land uses; monitor water quality and measure plankton concentrations in the water; and dredge for oysters, which are major plankton consumers. In the classroom, they conduct experiments that examine the effect of nitrogen and phosphorus on algae growth.
Ninth grade environmental science students don't go out on the water. They look at live plankton and learn to grow the organisms in test tubes using nutrients from soil samples taken from different land uses around the school grounds and then compare the results. They also conduct experiments that examine the ability of oysters to filter plankton in an aquarium.
Plankton experts from the lab visit classrooms to help teach students about how to identify algae and talk about its role in the Bay — both as a key part of the aquatic food chain, and as a problem when it becomes so abundant it forms blooms.
Before the program, "they were talking about these issues in the classroom, but for the most part there was no firsthand experience," said Drew Ferrier, director of the Society for Ocean Sciences.
Now, students get to work with scientists and conduct their own experiments, which can make studying single-cell organisms exciting, Ferrier said. "If you can get the kids to start looking through the microscopes and see some plankton, especially if it is moving around, it is amazing how excited they get when they see all the life in the water."
Each spring, students from the county's four high schools meet for a summit where they show off displays highlighting their projects, view each other's phytoplankton photos, and hear guest speakers talk about water quality; this year it was Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman.
Last year, longtime Patuxent River advocate Bernie Fowler attended and participated in the "Eutrophication Rap" produced by the students.
The program has operated for three years using funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Bay Watershed Education and Training Program. That funding ends this year, and it is up to the school district to determine whether it will continue, as the teachers have requested.
"We think it is a great idea whenever we can get kids together with scientists working in the field," said Grace Hanners, a science teacher at Huntingtown High School. "It makes science more real to them and more of a real life endeavor instead of just seeing scientists on a video."
Meanwhile, PLANS is expanding so several of the National Estuarine Research Reserves in Maryland will be able to offer the program to nearby schools. The program, noted Richard Lacouture, a phytoplankton scientist at the Morgan State lab, is highly adaptable since it's built on algae and nutrients — which are found pretty much everywhere.
"This is very transferable," he said. "Our ultimate goal is that one of these days PLANS can be used by anybody in any location."