A century ago, the oyster was New York’s pearl. Oystering was as integral to New York Harbor’s identity as the Statue of Liberty. The waters of the city and New Jersey boasted more than 260,000 acres of oyster beds spread throughout the harbor, its bays and estuaries, the lower Hudson and East rivers. New Yorkers ate more oyster meat than beef. The original New York “foot-longs” were Gowanus oysters, gathered from Gowanus Bay and Creek in Brooklyn and exported to Europe as a delicacy.
In present day New York, oysters are better associated with the Oyster Bar in the cellar of New York’s Grand Central Terminal, where oysters from Apalachicola Bay in Florida and Chincoteague Bay in Maryland are now the delicacy. Generations of pollution drove out New York oystering, and today the name “Gowanus” is identified less with the bay and more with the canal, a toxic federal Superfund site (hopefully on its way to a major cleanup).
John Cronin: By the late 1800s, New York Harbor was already being lamented. Harper’s Weekly was fond of running cartoons about how fouled it was and a federal law, the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, was enacted to control the abuse. But here we are, still talking about the harbor’s poor condition. Pairing a middle school education with its restoration is ambitious by any standard. How do the two fit together in the Billion Oyster Project?
Lauren Birney: City students benefit enormously from an increased awareness about their ecological place. Water defines New York City; it’s surrounded by it. Our young students will lead the community in the Billion Oyster Project, and get to understand first-hand what it means to make a real difference. They will earn a unique sense of ownership in their local and water community because they are the ones who are driving the restoration.
JC: In addition to the students’ work constructing reefs, growing and planting oysters, and operating monitoring equipment, the $5 million National Science Foundation grant is designed to translate that hands-on experience into a curriculum for the city school system. How?
LB: The harbor is like a living laboratory for education in STEM. We want to give students the opportunity to learn outside the school building. Our consortium of partners is creating opportunities for citizen science, real-time data collection, operation of monitoring technologies, and more. After-school mentoring provides extra enrichment for those students especially interested in STEM. Maybe a student gets excited about oysters or the condition of the harbor and decides to be a biologist, or pursue an interest in maritime law. An interest in our monitoring technologies could open a door to the study of engineering. These experiences are such a rarity for our students they may otherwise not have the opportunity to discover their passion.
JC: I know from experience it is not always easy to integrate such innovative education into the standard public school curriculum. Is that a challenge?
LB: Yes. But we have a great partner in the New York City school system, and a strong emphasis on teacher training. Over the next 18 months we expect to work directly with 40 teachers; each has 30 – 35 students. And those teachers are sharing with other teachers, such as English teachers. This is such a rich area of pedagogy it can infiltrate through all subject areas.