Science teacher Anthony Wasley and students involved with West Hartford’s Hall High School Coral Project have found a way to make the best of the pandemic, with students hosting virtual ‘tank tours’ for elementary schools.
By Ronni Newton
Despite a devastating loss for the Hall High School Coral Project when more than half of the livestock perished due a lengthy power outage, and amid a year when the Coral Club is unable to meet in person or host events for the community, Hall High School science teacher Anthony Wasley and his students have found a silver lining in hosting tank tours for West Hartford’s elementary and middle schools.
In August, Tropical Storm Isaias knocked out power to Hall High School and the outage lasted about five days, Wasley said.
“I was taking the corals and putting them in coolers,” he said. He brought some of the fish home, and also ended up donating some to a pet store so they would have a chance to survive.
One of the low points of the experience was when an anemone got caught in a piece of equipment and got shredded, spewing its venom everywhere.
“I lost almost all of my fish,” said Wasley, and overall he estimated 50-75% of the livestock – which include the corals, snails, and hermit crabs, as well as the fish – perished.
One of the things that saved some of the living creatures is that the room where the Coral Project is located at Hall was formerly a greenhouse and has lots of natural light so the livestock wasn’t in the dark all day long. And the storm ushered in cooler air so it wasn’t as hot as August typically is.
There was a generator – housed in the courtyard and connected to the tank system with a very long extension cord – but due to safety reasons it could only be run during working hours, Wasley said. “Everyone tried,” he said, and the work of the generator keeping water moving through the tanks plus the natural light probably prevented a total loss.
With some financial support from Hall and the Foundation for West Hartford Public Schools, and donations from other schools around the state that propagate coral, including the Marine Magnet School of Southwestern Connecticut, the Coral Project has been building back its underwater world.
“We’ve upgraded the plumbing,” Wasley said, and in the future the tank system is more outage-proof, with the ability to shut down only partial sections rather than the whole thing.
New corals are growing, and there are now new fish and other livestock thriving.
“After some upgrades, improvements, and restocking we have wanted to share our 450 gallon salt water system with the young community to educate them about the diverse coral reef ecosystem and bring awareness about the challenges corals face known as ‘coral bleaching’ due to anthropogenic climate change,” Wasley said. “We were eager to find creative ways to interact with the West Hartford community during the pandemic.”
The planning began in October, and in late February the Hall students started giving virtual “tank tours” to younger students. The tours serve as virtual field trips, and to date the Hall students have given nine tank tours to students at five different schools.
“It’s overall been a very positive experience, definitely on of those ‘when you have lemons make lemonade’ experiences,” Wasley said.
“The lessons run about 45 minutes and include the parts of coral, how to feed corals and keep them growing, different kinds of corals, symbiotic relationships in coral reefs, and how we propagate corals known as ‘fragging,'” Wasley said.
The Hall High School Coral Project includes the 42 students who take Wasley’s oceanography class as a science elective at Hall, plus the after school Coral Club. Students in the class maintain the system through feeding, cleaning, testing, and fragging. The club – which includes students at all grade levels, including some who also take the oceanography class – helps raise awareness and is involved in education and outreach.
“I joined Coral Project because the ocean is something I’ve been passionate about my whole life. I’ve wanted to do something with marine biology as long as I can remember,” said Hall senior Maeve Healy. “I love Coral Project because of all the different activities we get to do and the responsibility we have with the system and the club. We really run the club ourselves and get to participate in a bunch of cool programs,” she said, adding that she has even started a coral tank at her home after working with the corals at Hall.
All clubs have only been able to meet virtually this year, but in the hour a week they spend on Google Meet each Monday, Wasley provided guidance and a game plan but the students have done all the work in crafting their own professional-quality lessons.
Wasley said the goal was to stay true to the club’s mission statement: “Education brings awareness and awareness brings change.” But it was hard to bring awareness about coral without people being able to even see the tanks, he said.
The students attended some online webinars and got ideas on how to structure their own tank tours. Then they created lessons, practiced them, and edited them. The classes were then offered as virtual field trip experiences, conducted in real time.
“We also wanted to make it so at any time, someone could stop and ask questions,” Wasley said, and the students got to the point where they could be comfortable answering any type of question.
The questions have ranged from how corals get their colors, if corals move, to what if anything eats corals.
“The high school students at Hall will wear a handsfree headset and use a manual focus camera on a flexible mount so they can give close-up shots of the corals with high resolution. Students on the other side of town have been able to watch the tiny tentacles of a coral transfer bits of food into its mouth – in real time!” Wasley said.
West Hartford Public Schools fifth grade teacher Michelle Sullivan appreciated being able to schedule a tank tour for her class. “The Hall students did a fantastic job with the coral tours,” she said. “One student worked the camera while another talked about the corals, tanks, fracking, etc. Mr. Wasley bopped in at one point and talked to the kids about coral and what it takes to keep the coral growing and the tanks running well.”
Sullivan teaches in the RLE (Remote Learning Experience) and said her students really enjoyed learning about the Hall Coral Project and being able to take a virtual field trip in real time. “Because the field trip was live, my kids were able to ask questions and comment during the presentation, which is not often the case during a virtual field trip (most are pre recorded). One of my students even said, ‘I am totally doing that when I get to Hall.'”
King Philip Middle School sixth grade science teacher Heather Vocke said the Coral Project was a great way to kick off their ecology unit. “Students were able to make some connections to our curriculum, learning about symbiotic relationships, food chains, adaptations, and threats to coral and their ecosystems. Hall senior Maeve Healy was a knowledgeable tour guide, showing us the inner workings of the tanks and how the systems work. And it’s always great to work with the dynamic expert Anthony Wasley. As he says – ‘I’m on this planet to spread coral awareness!’
“In a year with no field trips, this was one authentic experience to engage my KP sixth grade scientists,” Vocke said. “Many of them are looking forward to checking out the Coral Club when they get to Hall in a few years.”
Students in the Coral Club give the tank tours during their free periods, when they often come into the Coral Project room anyway. The door is always open, Wasley said.
“We wanted to open this up to any West Hartford school this year, he said. It’s a great way to have the Coral Project become even more a part of the West Hartford community.
It’s been meaningful to the students at Hall who have been a part of the unique experience.
“Coral Club and Mr. Wasley has had a huge impact on my interest in science,” said sophomore Grace Wright-Goodison. “I am more of an ‘arts’ kid, but coral and oceanography is extremely interesting and inspired me to care more about my impact on the world around me. Just seeing the tanks when walking down the halls sparks joy for me and all students at Hall.”
“The Coral Project has done so much for me,” sophomore Jordan Kates said. “I have found my niche and I am able to interact with kids who I share a similar interest with. It is also very fulfilling to be able to grow corals and help the species grow, frag by frag.”
“I really love the Coral Project,” said senior Zac Millman. “It’s not something I would’ve thought to do but I’m so glad I did, getting to be part of a group working on something that actually makes something and getting to teach students and adults about it has been a really great experience. I’ve been helping out for almost four years at this point and I’m so glad I’ve helped the club grow and become more prominent.”
The tank tours have been a great way to spread the Coral Project’s message and get more people – particularly younger kids – excited about it.
The tank tours will continue, even after in-person field trips return. “The virtual tours are amazing. You don’t need field trip forms, you don’t need buses,” Wasley said.
“This pandemic has brought a lot of hardship, it’s limited us, but it also a silver lining,” Wasley said, because the tank tours probably would never have otherwise started.
He does look forward to the day when members of the public can return to the school buildings and see the underwater world that he and the students have created.
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