SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 22, 2012

Bacteria detectives on the job

Attributing problem to dog waste, students install dispensers to encourage owners to pick up

By Rachael Bailey Correspondent
The Salem News

---- — SALEM — In July, Linda Saris, director of Salem CyberSpace, launched a six-week project to help a team of at-risk Salem High School students perform better on the MCAS. By Aug. 17, six students had identified E. coli in the Bass River.

Yesterday, they took action.

After attributing the problem to dog owners not picking up after their pets, they installed three dispensers with disposable bags for walkers to use.

“We had to choose a science project and decided to do ours on bacteria,” said student Leslie Scarpatte, 14, of Salem. “We went to Leslie’s Retreat and took some samples from the river, the beach, and cleaned up.”

With a $40,000 grant from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Saris implemented the service-learning project to focus on helping students in biology and English without it feeling like school. The National Park Service and Salem Sound Coastwatch were also partners under the grant.

“I think every week, we were at the beach at least once,” Saris said. “The key was not to make it feel like school.”

After sampling Salem’s rivers and beaches, students detected E. coli in the Bass River with the help of Barbara Warren, executive director of Salem Sound Coastwatch. They brainstormed ways to decrease the presence of nearby dog waste and came up with the idea to install dispensers.

Saris pitched the service-learning project with an interactive and hands-on appeal. While many in the group are English as a Second Language students, they were challenged to speak English daily with the help of ESL teacher Mary Kate Adams. Science teacher Graeme Marcoux instructed the team in biology processes, and Warren informed them on a variety of environmental issues.

“I was very impressed with what they decided to do to help,” Warren said. “They became much more environmentally aware.”

Students were also given a minimum stipend of $800 based on their efforts and attendance and one credit toward high school courses.

“As a freshman, it helps me now in my biology class and I understand more things that we talk about,” said Chanel Garcia, 15. “Like today, I had to turn in my project on European sea squirts. Since I knew what they were and had seen them before, it came easy.”

Each day was a different activity or service. Some included trips to New England Biolabs, the National Park Service, the Marine Science Center at Northeastern University, Saugus Iron Works, Salem’s schooner Fame and Salem Willows.

“I wanted them to meet people in the profession,” Saris said. “I especially wanted the girls to see women workers in these professions.”

“We learned a lot about runoff,” Leslie said. “Plastics and paper and anything that’s hard to decompose just goes in the water, and it’s dangerous.”

Aside from science, students were also challenged to be resourceful, proactive and self-sufficient.

“The thing we were trying to do was get them to think through the problems on their own,” Saris said. “I think they’re used to having teachers tell them what to do all the time. Graeme and Mary Kate would just say, ‘Figure it out.’”

Saris has to report the students’ MCAS scores back to the state and is confident that more programs like this will carry into next year. Warren would like to see students follow up at the dog park periodically and measure the changes.

“We will do something like this next summer whether it’s under this grant or a different one,” Saris said. “I love service learning. It’s the way all kids should learn.”

Salem CyberSpace is a nonprofit that expands educational and career opportunities for Salem’s low-income adults and children using technology and innovative curricula.