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Healthy Coastal Habitats: Pluff Mud Serves as a Base for the Marsh, and for Innovative Coastal Education Programs

By E.V. Bell, South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium

Edited by Joey Holleman and Susan Ferris Hill, South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium

Pluff mud and paint brushes? These two seemingly unrelated items merge for a dynamic, week-long professional development opportunity designed to teach about the salt marsh ecosystem using the communication avenues of creative writing, visual and watercolor art and nature photography. The Salt Marsh STEAM (science-technology-engineering-art-math) workshop marries the artistic with the scientific while also highlighting a strong, long-standing partnership among the coordinating agencies.

Salt Marsh STEAM originated in 2009 as 2½-day workshop coordinated by the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium and the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). It expanded in 2014 to a week-long format through an additional partnership formed with the ACE (Ashepoo-Combahee-Edisto) Basin NERR. The unique program brings the creative arts and STEM disciplines together for a field-based, hands-on approach to teaching about the critical salt marsh ecosystem. Not only does Salt Marsh STEAM provide South Carolina teachers a unique professional development opportunity, the workshop also is promoted among the National Estuarine Research Reserve System as a Teachers On The Estuary program – a flagship estuarine professional development series offered by all 28 NERRs in the United States.

In seven years, the Consortium and NERR team has taught more than 85 K-12 teachers representing coastal and inland schools. The teachers have created iTrailers, videos, blogs, nature journals, A-B-C books and other creative projects highlighting the importance of the estuary and salt marsh.

“As an informal educator, it is often challenging to find learning opportunities that can provide valuable assistance in helping to serve wide-ranging audiences,” says Meika Samuel, former STEM manager for Girl Scouts of South Carolina-Mountains to Midlands Council.  “I appreciate that Salt Marsh STEAM integrated content, hands-on, field trips and networking components together seamlessly. Upon completing the workshop, I was able to immediately incorporate many of the topics and technologies that I learned into programs offered by my organization.”

While pluff mud and paint brushes seem unusual partners, pluff mud and Spartina alterniflora (Spartina) make perfect sense together. Spartina, the dominant plant in southeastern salt marshes, is the focal species for the student-driven salt marsh restoration program, From Seeds to Shorelinesm (S2S). The program teaches K-12 students about the importance of the salt marsh ecosystem through hands-on engagement at each step in the restoration process: collection of Spartina seeds in the fall, cultivation of young plants through the winter, and transplantation of young seedlings to designated areas of salt marsh during spring Restoration Days.

“The (From) Seeds to Shoreline project aligns perfectly with the S.C. science curriculum standards for third grade,” says Lori Essenberg, who teaches at Sullivan’s Island Elementary School near Charleston. “But more importantly, it gives my students the opportunity to learn about the environment that surrounds where they live and allows them to help in its restoration. Nothing beats the smiles on the faces of third graders the first time they sink up to their knees in pluff mud as they attempt to plant Spartina seedlings and being told it’s OK to get muddy!”

This program also highlights the partnership among the Consortium and local NERRs. The Consortium in 2011 created the S2S program in partnership with the Clemson University Extension Program and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), the managing agency of the ACE Basin NERR. As the program grew from eight schools in 2011 to its current 40-plus schools, the ACE Basin NERR and associated SCDNR education programs have assisted with S2S teacher training and the mentoring of participating schools throughout the academic year. In 2014, the North Inlet-Winyah Bay NERR joined the Consortium to serve as a local hub for participating schools and assist during Restoration Days. And in 2015, the S2S program model expanded into North Carolina and Georgia through partnerships with Sea Grant and NERR programs in those states. All in all, the program has transplanted more than 25,000 Spartina seedlings, worked with more than 75 teachers and reached more than 3,200 students.

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