By Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

At Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and St. Mary Star of the Sea, science is twice the fun.

The two schools in Newport News and Hampton, respectively, have embarked on a science program that is 50 percent inspiration, 50 percent cooperation. The two schools have been pooling resources at St. Mary’s waterfront classroom on Mill Creek Pond.

Students traded teachers for a few days, allowing Mt. Carmel students to enjoy mornings of shoreline exploration and marine science activities with St. Mary’s science teacher Sister Mary Therese, while St. Mary’s students participated in a hands-on lesson in atmospheric science led by Mt. Carmel science teacher, Mrs. Angie Rizzi.

On the first day of the program, Mt. Carmel seventh-graders visited St. Mary’s large covered deck on Mill Creek Pond, a broad, brackish stretch of water fed by the James River.

“It’s a unique ecosystem we have here,” said Mr. Richard Fierros, Marine Resource Program Manager for St. Mary’s. “It’s like the Chesapeake Bay in miniature.”

Sister Mary Therese was prepared to teach a lesson in measuring the ph factor and turbidity of the water, but the students found that for scientists, life in the field can bring the unexpected. A loggerhead turtle had washed up onto the beach, leading to an impromptu visit from Paula Demothenes of the Virginia Aquarium. She explained to the students that the turtle would be examined to determine the cause of death.

Afterwards, the students were then given a bit of time to explore the shoreline, where they discovered a world of periwinkles hidden among the marsh grasses: these were immediately adopted by the children.

Some of the periwinkles remained shyly in their shells, while some extended tiny antennae. One girl held a particularly bold periwinkle that felt comfortable enough to travel across her hand.

“I feel so special,” she said, watching the tiny creature make its way across her palm. “I have a little life right in my hands.”

“Let’s find nice homes for our new friends,” Sister Mary Therese, laughed, encouraging the children to return the snails and to turn their attention to some of the different types of aquatic plants on the beach. She began to ask the students questions about the plants, inviting them to speculate about how the different plants might affect one another and the health of the bay. For during these science sessions, it’s the teachers who ask the questions and the student scientists who find the answers.

Mr. Fierros noted that allowing the students to explore and discover things for themselves allows them to develop stronger problem-solving skills. He explained that during one measurement study, the students noticed that crabs recorded as four inches long actually looked larger than some measuring seven inches.

“‘Why is that, Mr. Fierros?’ they asked. I had to tell them, ‘I’m not an answer guy. You have everything you need. You look for the answer.’”

The students determined they were measuring the crabs from tip to tip and that did not provide an accurate standard since some of the crabs had longer horns than others. They worked together to come up with a new method of measurement.

Mr. Fierros said, “They take in all of the information, and they learn to apply it to find their own answers.”

Later in the week, St. Mary’s students had a turn to put their questioning skills to work through participating in GLOBE, moderated by Mt. Carmel science teacher, Mrs. Rizzi. GLOBE—which stands for Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment—is a science program that gives students the chance to participate in an international data collection project.

Mrs. Rizzi arrived at St. Mary’s with a tub full of instruments for measuring atmospheric conditions. Once outside, the students studied the skies, recording sky color and percentage of cloud cover and measuring temperature, air pressure and water vapor present.

Each student then had a turn at taking readings with a sun photometer, a device that measures direct sunlight. The students have worked with the devices before so they remembered there’s a bit of a trick to it: to take an accurate measurement, a small image of the sun on the device needs to line up with the narrow point of the viewfinder. So the students headed off, away from the trees, where they tilted the photometers from side to side to get the best readings.

Students will enter all of their recordings into the GLOBE database, which has records going back more than 20 years, compiled by children and teens in 110 countries.

Mrs. Rizzi explained that she encourages her students to gather as much data as they can; the more data they have, the better their chances of noticing patterns and noting correlations. Last year, Mrs. Rizzi explained, students using the sun photometers were able to detect smoke from Canadian wildfires.

“You want them to come up with their own hypotheses,” she said.

St. Mary’s eighth-grader Elizabeth Fierros said she has fun working with the different equipment to get the information she needs to draw her own conclusions. She explained that for one project, she used a water quality sensor called a PASCO to track correlations between salinity and temperature in the water.

“I really enjoyed working with the PASCO,” she said. “You’ll never know what you’ll find.”

“It’s all related to learning about the environment,” said Mrs. Rizzi. “Just as Pope Francis said in his encyclical, Laudato Si. It’s all about learning to care for the environment. It’s something they will need to know.”

(Wendy Klesch is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake.)