For the past four years, Dr. Heather Heenehan (AKA “Dr. H”) has been guiding student-led research in her Marine Science classes. Using the Long Island Sound —specifically Burying Hill Beach and occasionally Frost Point beach — as their testing ground, each semester brings significant learning opportunities for the students. This year the courses saw an expansion not only in the areas of focus, but the manner in which the students report their findings out to the greater community.
The goal of the Marine Science classes is three-fold: to allow students to learn and discover research and reporting methods; to equip them with a better understanding of the factors that can affect these natural resources; and — perhaps most importantly — to spark a greater appreciation of the ecosystems that they encounter every day.
“Students are used to seeing the beach as somewhere to hang out and have lunch, or go for a walk, but now they’re looking at the beach differently,” said Heenehan. “It’s kind of like putting different goggles on when they come to the beach — a place they’ve probably been coming to since they’ve been at GFA.”
In the fall, the Marine Science: Local class was initially divided into the five research topics: Asian shore crabs, shore birds, biodiversity, marine debris, and water quality. These topics had been studied in prior years, so there were processes and data to work from. Yet a few students took it upon themselves to investigate two new topics this year: phytoplankton and microplastics. While the students spend the semester — or full year, if they move on to Marine Science: Global — studying their specific topics, they each have a chance to join the other groups to learn a little more about the topics, and different approaches to research and documentation.
The applications to this type of class are varied, and the students look forward to analyzing their own results, but they are equally excited about finding more efficient and effective ways to approach their data collection. Soren Morrison’s biodiversity group spent the year documenting Long Island Sound coastal life — from crabs, to fish, to seaweed. Part of their goal was to create a database of every organism they were able to identify.
“As seasons change you’re not going to find the same species. We set the next year’s class up to have fish graphs and crab graphs to compare to,” explained Morrison. “We want them to use our data to more easily find out what species they’re looking at, but we also want them to record their own data. It wouldn’t be helpful for them if they just used our data.”
While most of the groups had the advantage of building off the previous years of established protocols, the microplastics and phytoplankton groups had no previous data to build on, and no former protocols to implement. They had to start from scratch. Senior Andrew Keaveney initially approached Heenehan with the idea for the microplastics research project without even knowing whether he would find any — or more importantly, how he would find them.
“The first semester was almost like building my own curriculum where I would be able to follow my own process through a series of guidelines,” he said.
The new topics got off to a slower start than the established groups, but the trials and errors of research — be it an entirely new topic or an established area of research — are what adds depth to the Marine Science courses. For example, the microplastics research required the sand samples to be dried out. This was unavoidable time during which no other work could proceed, and as a result, Keaveney spent more than two class periods each week doing analysis that other groups could achieve in one. He shared his conundrum with his peers, and those collaborative conversations resulted in a new solution: why not just dry it out in the chemistry ovens? This allowed Keaveney — who was joined in the second semester by senior Peter Kane — to cut his processing time in half, and that will allow next year’s group to get an earlier start on their own data collection. Yet Keaveney and Kane admit there are still opportunities to improve on their methods.
“I really want future grades to take my curriculum and — not follow it as precisely as I created it — obviously it’s still new — but to manipulate it and change it to make it an even better process,” said Keaveney.
This kind of long-term data collection also allows the school community to better understand and subsequently value the ecosystems by which they are surrounded.
“Long-term data is not easy to collect, and it’s really important. So for however long I’m teaching marine science we are going to collect these data,” Heenehan stated.
The students hope their findings will resonate beyond the school community. The microplastics team did in fact find microplastics embedded almost imperceptibly in the sands of Burying Hill Beach. Scientists have recently discovered microplastics in humans’ bloodstream, so the implications of that local discovery indicate that microplastics are not just “someone else’s problem.” Keaveney and Kane hope that their discovery can be the start of a call to action.
“I’d like for the work we’ve done to be 1) an eye-opener for the community to understand that some things that can harm you, you can’t always see coming; and 2) maybe be used to help enact future government policies,” Keaveney said.
Throughout the year, Dr. H's students also brought Middle and Lower School groups out to the beach in hopes of sparking an appreciation for the local ecosystem, and an interest in continuing this important work well into the future.
At the end of the year, the months of research manifested in video reports and mini documentaries of their different processes and findings. The video component is new this year: an idea inspired by senior — and accomplished filmmaker — Santiago Mejia, a member of the biodiversity team. They hope that the videos will reach an even wider audience this year. To get a glimpse inside the semester, visit www.gfacademy.org/marinescience.
Asian Shore Crabs
(Caroline Smith ’22 and Marcus Murabito ’22)
“Looking at the seasonal trends has been the most interesting part of the year. We’d love to improve the studies for future years so students who take the same survey can look at data trends for the next two, five, or even 10 years.”
— Caroline Smith ’22
(Santiago Mejia ’22, Jeremy Robertson ’22, Soren Morrison ’22)
“I’ve learned a lot more about the beach and how much biodiversity there is. On the shoreline and the high tide line, there’s a plethora of shells that we’ve found — if you can identify them, you get so much more out of it.”
— Jeremy Robertson ’22
(Andrew Keaveney ’22, Peter Kane ’22)
“I got pretty interested in microplastics this year, especially after I started doing the research. They’re found everywhere, even in people’s blood. It’s important for people to start thinking about where these microplastics come from.”
— Peter Kane ’22
(Cassie Callari ’22 and Lilly Sutter ’22)
“I’ve started noticing when birds would come in and out during each season based on the temperature and tides. I also learned so many new bird species. … The construction [rebuilding a pier at Burying Hill Beach] has devastated us. The noise pollution has really affected how many birds we see, which is not normal.”
— Cassie Callari ’22
(Anna Reynolds ’22 and Jason Hernandez ’22)
“There were a lot of people passing by asking us what we were doing. When we explained that we were gathering trash from the marsh and the beach, I think they really appreciated that, and that motivates them in a way — to see younger high school students giving back.”
— Jason Hernandez ’22
* During COVID, the marine debris team found a lot of single-use masks on the ground. “This is not something that you want to pick up yourself, so you’ll see them on the side of the road and everywhere,” pointed out Reynolds. In response, she worked with Heenehan to purchase a Teracycle bin for masks — it is in the hallway by the US marine science classroom.
(Katie Gabriele ’22 and Tristan Jones ’22)
“You can’t see the phytoplankton with the naked eye, so there’s always something surprising about that. For example, we took sample in a puddle [next to the tidal estuary that enters at Burying Hill Beach]. We were surprised to find that there were more phytoplankton there than in the other water samples we were taking.”
— Tristan Jones ’22
“We went into it not knowing where start and had to refine our project throughout the year, and it changes every time that we take these samples. Hopefully with a concrete protocol for taking samples, people can build on that each year.”
— Katie Gabriele ’22
(Simone Snow ’24 and Molly Keaveney ’24)
“We’re going to try to build on our work this year in Dr. H’s Inquiry next year. In doing Marine Science, it has given us a really great foundation for that. … I really loved the amount of freedom we had in our research for this class. That is what drew me in originally and has kept me engaged throughout the year.”
— Simone Snow ’24