Learning the Living Environment the Wet Way
AREAC, New York City’s Estuaries, and Balanced Aquaria
by Chester Zarnoch
Nestled in a corner of Ingersoll Hall, on one of America’s most beautiful campuses, Brooklyn College, lays a hidden gem for researchers, educators, and students of all levels — the Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center (AREAC). Distinguished Professor Martin P. Schreibman founded AREAC in 1998 as an affiliate of the Applied Science Coordinating Institute of CUNY. The center, now internationally recognized, is dedicated to basic and applied studies of aquatic organisms and the environments they inhabit. AREAC is truly a state-of-the-art facility, which excels in its ability to create computer-controlled aquatic ecosystems with temperatures ranging from near-zero to tropical, salinities from freshwater to hyper-saline, and varying photoperiods. These systems have been used in research that includes environmental assessment, biomedical research, and, in the case of two of our systems (each 2,000 gallons), urban aquaculture. Simply put, aquaculture is fish farming. It parallels agriculture in many ways, but AREAC’s intensive control of aquatic ecosystems allows for large-scale production in the limited space of an urban setting — thousands of pounds of fish in your neighborhood!
AREAC first became associated with CUNY’s College Now program in 2001, when I began working on my graduate research while a College Now instructor for Living Environment classes at two high schools in Brooklyn. After learning about AREAC in several of my lessons, the students were eager to see the center. I scheduled a field trip to AREAC and prepared activities for the day. During my preparation I realized that the diverse and exciting research that students would witness being conducted at AREAC was easily adapted to the Living Environment curriculum. Their firsthand experience of such research would directly relate to the concepts they would learn throughout the year, including ecology, reproduction, plant biology, scientific method, physiology, evolution, toxicology, and data collection. Moreover, the activities I designed were interactive and hands-on, making the learning and overall experience extremely powerful and fun.
The field trip was so successful — with a high degree of learning evident among the students and plenty of positive feedback from the participating teachers — that it led to the development of an equally well-received College Now biology workshop run through AREAC. Other College Now instructors have told me that the students speak and write about their experience at AREAC for weeks after the visit. Teachers who have brought their classes to the workshops tend to come back each semester and often incorporate the experience into future lessons.
Finally, in the most recent outgrowth of that original field trip, AREAC and College Now teamed in the summer of 2003 to teach a course called Urban Marine Ecology, which we hope to offer again in the future. In this effort to introduce even more students to the natural resources we have here in the city, students spent several weeks learning about marine ecology and research while studying at AREAC and going on field trips to various marine environments. This was truly a life changing experience for the students; some had never even been to the beach! After a two-week course, the students developed and conducted their own research projects. They were quite dedicated and most overachieved on their research projects.
The workshops and summer course have been quite personally rewarding, as I get to introduce hundreds of young minds to horseshoe crabs, tilapia aquaculture, winter flounder, clams, oysters, corals and clownfish, which they may never have seen or even heard of. I also get the chance to encourage students to achieve in high school, so that they can experience and participate in the opportunities that AREAC, Brooklyn College and CUNY have to offer.
New York City’s Estuaries
Aware that this is a city-wide program and the logistics of bringing classes from other boroughs to Brooklyn may be too complicated, let me describe another resource, guaranteed to be close to your school. New York City has 585 miles of land-water interface, providing ample opportunity for utilizing the local marine environment as a classroom. The hustle and bustle of the city often gets the best of us and we forget that we are surrounded by estuaries, partially enclosed bodies of water formed where freshwater from rivers, streams, and other run-off systems empties into the ocean to mix with salt water. Nutrients from the freshwater sources enrich estuarine waters, making estuaries one of the most biologically productive environments on the planet.
Among New York’s estuaries are:
- the Hudson River estuary, one of the most biologically important estuaries in the US;
- the Long Island Sound estuary, an extremely productive estuary, whose importance is felt regionally because it borders New York City, Westchester County, Long Island, and Connecticut; and
- the Jamaica Bay estuary (actually part of a United States National Park called Gateway National Recreation Area, one of two major urban National Parks in the US.)
I recommend taking a trip to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, where students can experience the juxtaposition of an urban environment and a natural environment. Many species of birds, plants, and invertebrates inhabit the Refuge’s several different habitats, which include woodlands, freshwater ponds, and salt marshes.
(this section is a sidebar in the current CN site)
In addition to these links for specific estuaries, the Internet provides other resources on estuaries, including:
- Harbor Estuary (site of the New York — New Jersey Harbor Program to conserve estuaries, it includes a teachers guide to estuary education)
- EPA’s Site on Estuaries in General (designed for kids).
Lastly, for those educators who despise the words “field trip” (I know you are out there!), I offer one last suggestion to incorporate hands-on aquatic ecology into your Living Environment curriculum. At AREAC we use static aquaria to culture many of our experimental animals. These aquaria, which require no filtration, simply contain gravel, freshwater, snails, aquatic plants, clamshells, and fish. The idea behind these aquaria is that we create a balanced ecosystem, only adding food (and incidentally atmospheric oxygen), thus they are mostly self-sustaining and consequently easy to keep in a classroom. These aquaria are relatively inexpensive and come in a variety of sizes. In some of our programs at AREAC we give each student his or her own 2.5–gallon tank, which fosters personal interest in and stewardship of the tank — and, therefore, the scientific principles encountered. Based on the components of the balanced ecosystems, there are some obvious topics of discussion related to the Living Environment such as photosynthesis, respiration, pH and nitrification. This is just the tip of the iceberg; it is my belief that the entire Living Environment curriculum can be taught through the use of the balanced aquaria. A background in biology, some fish knowledge, and some creative thinking can go a long way
In closing, I extend an invitation to you to visit AREAC and to share in our visions of making urban aquatic sciences meaningful to the students, teachers, and families for whom it matters the most.
Chester Zarnoch is a Ph.D. candidate in biology at the CUNY Graduate School and University Center. His research centers on the physiological ecology of bivalves at the Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center (AREAC) and in Jamaica Bay, NY. He teaches core biology laboratories at Brooklyn College, in addition to working for the college’s College Now program.