I’m pretty sure I never had the opportunity to take a field trip on a motor boat to learn about the local marshland.
I certainly did not have access to the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston (May 2000) or the Port Royal Maritime Center (November 2014) just up the street. Our community is bringing emphasis to the Lowcountry marine environment and I am making every effort to support it.
Over the past year, I’ve taken many a field trip aboard my tour boat, Spartina, on the May River. I have observed the things that catch the attention of a nine-year-old.
Some of them have never been on a boat and they love to “go faster.”
When I attempt to explain the basis of the ecosystem, the 200,000 acres of marsh in Beaufort County, they could care less. They want to see a dolphin and, when we find one, their attention span is about 30 seconds before they want me to find another one. The fiddler crabs that I bring along will entertain them for a moment. Only long enough for me to explain that their role in nature. I tell them they clean the surface of the mudflat when they emerge at low tide. Then they ask, “What else do you have in the bucket?”
I attribute this need for instant gratification and excitement to the immediate access of the computer age. When I was nine, I was fascinated by the feeling of a fiddler crab running over the top of my foot, and those crabby eyes that act independently of one another…one up, one down: “Mom! He’s winking at me!”
How do we get the attention of a nine-year-old to notice things that move across a mud flat?
Well, I have a funny, TRUE story that happened on one of my first field trips.
It was the beginning of the school year and the first time that this age group had been on the boat. One hundred second and third graders filled the Port Royal Maritime Center and teachers were frantically trying to divide them into groups. I took 20 on each trip for five one-hour boat tours. At the end of that day, I was completely enlightened—not in a good way or a bad way, just enlightened. I feel that I am more prepared for living in this unpredictable world after this experience and several subsequent ones just like it.
With this age group, I find that in order to make an impression, one must balance of fun and fact.
Although sometimes they end up hating me when I tell them to get their feet off the cushions or to stop talking when I am talking, I continue to try to impress them with nature.
When on a field trip for the Port Royal Maritime Center, I start with a description of the mud flat, constructed of silt and held together by the marsh grass. I proceed to explain that when the fiddler crabs emerge from their burrows at low tide, they release a gas. The gas is the product of an anaerobic bacteria decomposing organic matter deep in the mudflat. One of the students immediately raised his hand with enthusiasm to ask a question. I suddenly felt pride for my attempt to spark interest in the marine environment.
The question was this: “Captain Amber, is that like a bacteria FART?”
Having no kids of my own, I had forgotten how comical toilet humor can be for this age group. After I regained control over the group, I announced, “Actually, that is somewhat accurate, but if you are going to use that analogy, you must do me a favor. When you are crossing the Broad River Bridge, roll down the window, smell the hydrogen sulfide gas emitted from the mud flat at low tide and, with your fist in the air, proclaim loudly, “THANK GOODNESS IT’S WORKING!”
When your mom asks you what you are talking about, say, “Mom, the bacteria are farting and doing their job!”
Back at the dock, I explained to the teachers that the only thing the kids are going to remember about the one-hour trip is the word “fart.” I apologized, but made them aware that I did not introduce the concept, they did.
They assured me, “Amber, we deal with these people on a daily basis.
Don’t be shocked…we aren’t.” Now that I was off the hook, I reiterated that if they remember just that one thing, it is accurate and I may have actually taught them something.
Although I am fascinated with our unique ecosystem, I’ve learned to “bring it down” to a level of comprehension in a child’s mind. This is harder than you think, especially for a biologist that is passionate about the details.
For all you teachers out there, I appreciate you more than ever. THANK YOU! I’ll see you soon.
Written by Amber Hester Kuehn with photos courtesy of Amber Hester Kuehn.