Saving Savin Hill Marine Ecosystems

The Saving Savin Hill Marine Ecosystems learning expedition was developed by science teacher Elizabeth Schibuk. Introduced three years ago, this learning expedition was co-taught in 2017-2018 by Ms. Schibuk and seventh grade humanities teacher Ezra Fischer over the course of the final seven weeks of the school year. Savin Hill Cove is a threatened salt-marsh ecosystem in Dorchester that has experienced environmental challenges as a result of 400 years of urbanization in Boston. During this learning expedition, students investigated the ways people have contributed to pollution in our local waters and ways we can repair our ecosystems. For their culminating project, students created and recorded video public service announcements to educate others about ways to be responsible environmental stewards.

The Savin Hill learning expedition focused on impact of people on the natural world — both the deleterious effects of urbanization and the ways people can use persuasion to encourage positive steps to repair marine ecosystems.

The Savin Hill learning expedition’s learning targets included:

  • I can describe the features of a healthy marine ecosystem.
  • I can evaluate the health of a marine ecosystem.
  • I can describe the sources and consequences of urban water pollution.
  • I can evaluate strategies for improving marine ecosystem health in urban environments.
  • I can communicate my understanding of marine ecology.

The Savin Hill learning expedition was guided by the question, “How has urbanization impacted marine ecosystems in the Boston Harbor?”

The Saving Savin Hill Marine Ecosystems learning expedition guided student learning through three case studies. The first case study asked students to consider where marine ecosystem damage came from. It focused on ways to evaluate ecosystem health, featuring a range of topics that students used to understand the quality of the water in Savin Hill Cove. Students learned how to test water quality and analyze results, looking at factors such as organism inventory and biodiversity, pH, coliform, nitrogen, phosphate, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity. During this case study, students did fieldwork at Savin Hill Cove, using the iNaturalist app to identify organisms present or missing from the ecosystem, and doing water tests. In their humanities class, seventh grade students read parts of Charles Fishman’s The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water and Barbara Kingsolver’s essay, “Water is Life.”

The second case study was guided by the question, “How did this happen?” and focused on 400 years of urbanization in Boston. Students considered the implications of development on marine ecosystems, learning about and analyzing settlement patterns, development, landfill, the changing shoreline, sewer systems, municipal waste water, pervious and impervious cover, and biotic integrity. In this phase of the work, students visited MIT’s Edgerton Center, an experiential learning venue, to learn how water and contaminants flow through different soils to understand how natural infiltration allows soil to filter and naturally clean groundwater. They also studied the impacts of permeable and impermeable ground cover.

Students then asked, “What can we do about this?” during the third case study, which was dedicated to engineering solutions. Students learned about various remedies and technologies that could improve city water management and the health of the ecosystem. Students met with an urban planner and worked with an expert from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, who spoke about storm water management and pollution. Students collaborated with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission on a service project in which they labeled area storm drains with “Don’t Dump, Drains to the Bay” decals. In this third case study, students learned about ways they might be able to navigate politics and policy to advocate for environmental engineering solutions such as green roofs, permeable pavement, and rain gardens.

Using information gathered during their first case study, as well as arguments made in The Big Thirst and “Water is Life,” students wrote an essay about whether or not the ecosystems at Savin Hill Cove are healthy. They were required to organize evidence gathered about the water qualities and argue their positions.

Other projects that were part of this learning expedition included the construction of a map and accompanying written analysis that demonstrated the pervious and impervious cover in Boston. This map, which became a highlight of the celebration of learning that concluded this learning expedition, demonstrated that when there was a high percentage of impervious cover, the biotic score of surrounding water source was quite low.

For their final projects, students became writers, filmmakers, and environmental advocates as they created public service announcements (PSAs) that could be used to teach the public about some of the issues that they learned about. These three- to four-minute PSAs were shared in video form, with scripts written and narrated by students who worked in small groups. Students shared compelling images and added music to underscore their messages. Students created storyboards and scripts in class, sharing these with their teachers and classmates who used a rubric to critique and improve the drafts. Students then finalized their scripts and recorded the final version of the videos.

The PSAs, accompanied by water testing demonstrations, the class-created map that depicted Boston’s permeable and impermeable surfaces along with water quality indicators, historical representations of Boston’s changing shoreline, and more were part of the Saving Savin Hill Marine Ecosystems celebration of learning. To encourage leadership and ownership, the seventh grade teachers invited students to plan this celebration of learning. Students formed a celebration of learning planning steering committee that met before school several times to envision and plan the best ways students could share what they had learned. Seventh grader Amaya, a steering committee member, shared that students reflected on past celebrations of learning to figure out what went well. They recommended hands on experiences and many different stations for visitors to meet with students and learn about their work. “When students and teachers shared ideas together, we came up with something that was really engaging,” Amaya observed.

We invite you to view a PSA from the Saving Savin Hill Marine Ecosystems learning expedition, created by Conservatory Lab students Jaileen, Taylah, and Na’Riaya.

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