Whirlwind is an understatement when trying to describe the two days I spent running from Rockland to three different high schools in Connecticut and a fantastic restaurant serving invasive species. But I am getting ahead of myself so lets back up....
I was fortunate enough to be included in a group of educators, aquaculturists, and administrators that traveled together down to Connecticut to learn more about how aquaculture education is being integrated into schools and how schools are even being built around aquaculture. Yvonne Thomas (Island Institute, Director of Education) was the organizer and we were joined by Alison England and Amy Palmer (St. George School teachers), Neil Greenberg (Aquaculture Research Center manager, UMaine), and Laurie Bragg (NSF EPSCoR Project Administrator/Program and Outreach Manager).
The programs we were able to visit are examples of schools that are built around aquaculture and maritime industry rather than using aquaculture as a 'token' part of their curriculum. The first school we visited was the Marine Science Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut where we were given a tour by the two aquaculture teachers, Eric Livinoff and Serge Medvedev. Their facility was a DREAM from both a teacher standpoint and an aquaculturist standpoint and it was a wonderful way to start our trip. Both faculty members were extremely generous with their time and their information as we learned about the culture and philosophy of the school and got a chance to observe student projects in action. The Harkness table definitely was an impressive feature of their open library and truly symbolized the way the students were expected to interact with each other and their teachers. The student aquaculture projects ranged from raising ornamental fish to designing tank systems for aquaponics and troubleshooting algal culture techniques. All of us left the facility with our jaws on the floor and were excited to see what else the trip held for us.
Our second stop was at The Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center of New Haven that sat directly on the New Haven sound and blew our mind all over again. This school is one of 19 agriculture based vocational high schools in the state and students attending the school are given an incredible education preparing them for college, technical schools, or employment directly upon graduation. The curriculum progresses students through various levels of maritime trades including boat building, lobstering, and vessel navigation and safety at sea in addition to aqauculture options. The aquaculture facility in this school is in the main building and was packed FULL of every tank imaginable, from gorgeous reef tanks where students were propagating coral to columns of bubbling micro algae to tanks housing lobster condos ingeniously made from inexpensive Tupperware containers. The highly hands-on curriculum for these students really helps them fail early and fail often at the beginning of their career and then build their confidence and competence as they progress towards graduation. Ned Flanagan was our guide through the building and through the curriculum and, again, amazed us with how helpful and thorough he was when explaining the the school from the ground up. We all left the school a bit shell shocked from a day filled with an overwhelming amount of information. Our blood sugar was also dropping so it was time to find dinner.
At the outset, Miya Sushi looks like any other small sushi restaurant with warm, eclectic decor. The reason we traveled to this restaurant in particular was evident as soon as we opened the menu as most of the dishes featured invasive species and all were focused on sustainability. The flavor profiles and the artistry of the dishes themselves were fantastic and our group delighted in trying things that we wouldn't be able to find anywhere else. The most memorable bite for all of us was likely the jellyfish sushi that was graciously provided on the house by the restaurant. Whatever we were expecting it was NOT a piece of 'meat' that was almost crunchy! The texture was nothing like anything else I have ever eaten and I'm actually wanting to try it again because I was so overwhelmed by the texture that I can't even remember the taste to be able to describe it! My meal included a crispy, invasive Asian shore crab, we had plates of lionfish and Asian carp and garnishes of various insects. It would be easy for this type of fare to just be sensational and focused the thrill of trying these things for novelty sake but the dishes were truly delicious and we all felt fortunate to have been able to eat there.
The next morning popped us back in the Suburban to travel to our final destination the Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science and Technology Education Center (AQUA). We were greeted by Dr. Charles Yarish, a professor at the University of Connecticut and a major supporter of the school. Dr. Yarish and co-founder John Curtis were our guides and spent an incredible amount of time making sure we saw everything the school had to offer and, once again, we were awed. The aquaculture facility itself was the largest of the three schools we visited and it was clear that it was heavily used. The equipment that we saw in that facility, in the chemistry lab, and elsewhere in the building was incredibly sophisticated and Dr. Yarish explained that he sent his graduate students to the school to use some of the equipment/facilities because they were better than what he had in his own lab. The school certainly empowers students with knowledge and skills and strives to make connections to the community, including letting the students operate a fish market each week that brings parents and other community members into the school for the quality seafood they can purchase.
We all left the trip impressed and a little overwhelmed. The only problem with seeing schools that have built themselves around aquaculture (physically as well as conceptually) is that it is hard to extract how to take that back to Maine and integrate it into schools that don't have that infrastructure. The conversations on the ride back were great for helping all of us process everything we had just seen and experienced. I am thrilled I had the opportunity and you can bet that there are plenty of aquaculture resources for 'landlocked' teachers coming down the pike very soon. Keep checking back with us and check out our new Resources page for lesson plan updates!