Why the Work Matters

The work that students do in this project will help communities manage a resource that is important to the community’s economic health. It also will help develop a better understanding of how schools and their students can connect with communities in other ways that address issues that matter in those communities.

This project focuses on management of Mya arenaria (softshell clams). In Maine, towns can elect to manage their clam fisheries. But Maine softshell calm harvests are declining dramatically. Landings in 2017 were the lowest in 87 years.  These rapid changes confront towns with new, difficult challenges as they work to sustain a fishery that has been an important part of the local economy.

We know from research at the Downeast Institute and elsewhere that predation by the invasive green crab, Carcinus maenas, is a primary driver of this decline. The question facing towns is how to respond.

Where Students Can Contribute

Even though green crabs have been eating clams ever since they arrived in Maine in the early 1900s, clam populations did not start to decline until about twenty years ago. A big reason for the change is that many more juvenile crabs are now surviving their first winter since winters are warmer. Warmer waters also appear to be speeding up crab reproduction.

In order to maintain their clam fisheries, some towns purchase tens of thousands of hatchery clams that they use as “seed” on clam flats and then spread nets over the seeded clams to protect them from crabs.  Towns also spread out nets just to protect new, very small wild clams that float in on currents and settle out of the water onto the mud,

Putting out nets is expensive in terms of fishermen’s time, just as buying hatchery clams is expensive, so towns want to make sure that they are investing this time and money in places where clams grow most quickly, wild clam recruitment is most abundant, and predation pressure is lowest. These factors differ from cove-to-cove, and towns do not have such information for the coves that they manage.

In the CSI-Maine mission, students collect data to help towns make decisions about where they want to focus their investments in growing hatchery clams to legal size and in capturing new wild clams that can be protected for eventual harvest. With the assistance of the clam warden, fishermen, and the shellfish committee, students place experimental plots into the mud, collect the data, analyze it, and present it to the shellfish committee.

Collaboration Across Communities

One of the ways that CSI-Maine supports students and teachers is by connecting them to other students and teachers. Although the teachers in this program are teaching students of different ages and are pursuing a variety of educational outcomes, CSI-Maine brings them together around shared methods and shared data. Teachers learn from each other by sharing know-how and implementation ideas; students learn from each other by sharing data and by using each other’s data to think about bigger questions that reach beyond their own community.

Learning Through Authentic Scientific Work

The work that students undertake as part of CSI-Maine is authentic in two different ways. Both are important

  1. The Data Matter to students’ communities and to Maine scientists.  In much of the scientific work in schools, the teacher knows what the students will find before the data are collected. No one outside the school cares about such data.  That is not the case in CSI-Maine. Shellfish committees will use the data that students collect and the analyses that students produce to make decisions
  2. Student’s Are Involved in the Full Range of Science Practices. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) list eight science and engineering practices.   CSI-Maine provides students with a way to engage deeply in each of these practices and does so in a way that connects all of these activities around a common mission that matters to others.

In the past decade of working with students and teachers on other authentic scientific work, we have found that the combination of these two features–work that matters outside school walls and that students see through from beginning to end–is not only a good thing for students who are already interested in science, but can also provide opportunities to re-engage students who have decided that though science might be OK for others, it is not something that they do. In fact, much of our motivation for this work is to bring these students to a new orientation, where they feel that science is useful, sometimes interesting, and something to which they can contribute, even if it is not something they want to do for a living.

Community Science Literacy

While working with schools and communities to help them utilize their shared capacities–know-how in the school and know-how in the community outside the school–to address the problem softshell clam management, we also seek to learn things that can help us–and others–connect schools and communities around other problems with community impact.

A few years ago a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine defined community science literacy this way:

Science literacy in a community does not require each individual to attain a particular threshold of knowledge, skills, and abilities; rather, it is a matter of a community having sufficient shared resources that are distributed and organized in such a way that the varying abilities of community members work in concert to contribute to the community’s overall well-being.*

Overall well-being for communities is our larger goal in undertaking this work. Looking beyond schools and shellfish committees, we seek to build upon the work in CSI-Maine to develop guidelines and know how that will be useful in other programs to support community resilience and health.


*National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2016). Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. p. 73