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One Class, One Day: Understanding Boston Harbor

From Snails to Whales


Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Bruce Berman is up to his knees in the cold ocean, picking up things that are creepy, crawly, and slimy. His students aren’t as brave.

“Get adventurous!” he yells to those still standing on the beach. “Walk out into this tide pool. Take off your shoes. Look at this, it’s a sea of flippin’ periwinkles!”

The Metropolitan College instructor is teaching From Snails to Whales, an earth sciences class designed to educate students about the flora and fauna of Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay.

“I like to teach this class because there are a lot of people for whom science is an abstract thing,” Berman says. “They can’t always see the relevance and importance of it in their daily lives or how it improves their quality of life. But I find that with this class, my students are really interested in learning about Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay. When they are interested and willing to learn, they learn a lot.”

For the 22 students enrolled in the two-week intensive summer course, it’s a chance to gain a unique perspective on aquatic life. Most of the learning takes place on site, under the docks in Fort Point, on the stern of a boat during a whale watch tour, even in a MET kitchen, where Berman dissects and then cooks a freshly caught striped bass.

Photo by Max Esposito  for Boston University Photography.

Photo by Max Esposito for Boston University Photography.

But before students can explore today’s Boston Harbor, Berman first needs them to understand and appreciate the Boston Harbor cleanup, one of the most successful environmental stories in American history, and something he observed firsthand. When not teaching, Berman is the director of communications strategy and programs at the nonprofit Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, an advocacy organization dedicated to restoring and protecting Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay. In addition to the Snails to Whales class, he teaches the graduate course Politics, Public Relations, and Public Policy: The Boston Harbor Clean-Up.

“The success of the Boston Harbor cleanup is an incredible story,” says Berman, who lives in the harbor on a 40-foot boat with his wife most of the year. “No one should leave Boston without knowing it.”

Berman begins his course by giving students a quick history of the harbor’s evolution from polluted to pristine. He says that for decades the harbor was filthy, with raw sewage and human waste pumped into the water and routinely washing ashore on area beaches. After years of advocacy by area cities, towns, and environmental groups, the federal government ordered the harbor cleanup. It took more than 20 years and a price tag of over $4.5 billion. Today, Boston Harbor boasts one of the most diverse urban ecosystems in America, as well as the country’s cleanest urban beaches.

“The harbor is a lab for learning about science, history, and human behavior,” he says. “A clean Boston Harbor is so important to families who cannot afford to go to a beach on Cape Ann or Cape Cod.”

The harbor as classroom

Berman’s students gather at 8:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday on Boston’s Long Wharf for a field trip to the Boston Harbor Islands. They will take a ferry to Georges Island, and from there, a smaller boat to Lovells Island. The city is in the midst of an intense heat wave—this day the thermometer will eventually hit 92—and it is already sticky and muggy. Some students clutch Starbucks iced coffees, others pass around sunscreen.

While most of the students appear a little groggy, Berman is animated: loud, energetic, funny, and prone to calling on students cold in his booming voice. He is tanned from all of his time outside.

Today the class will hone their observation skills as they dig for snails, periwinkles, and Asian shore crabs, all invasive species in the Boston Harbor ecosystem. Before the group embarks, Berman gives a quick lecture about what happens when animals and plant life are introduced into an ecosystem, either on purpose or by accident, and some of the repercussions of that introduction.

“I want you to get your hands dirty,” he urges the class. “You will observe and research.”

Berman notes that most students today have gotten out of the habit of observing firsthand. In an internet world, it’s often easier to type a phrase into a website like Google Images to identify the specific fish you’re looking at. He insists that his students take careful notes and carry guidebooks. Some bring colored pencils and notebooks to sketch what they see, while others rely on their cell phone cameras to record their finds.

Photo by Max Esposito  for Boston University Photography.

Photo by Max Esposito for Boston University Photography.

Once on Lovells Island, students enter a remote world, with a rocky swimming beach, pine woods, and the remains of the early 20th-century Fort Standish. In 1782, the French warship Magnifique, said to have been carrying treasure, crashed along the rocky shore. Today, there is no electricity on its 62 acres, and besides a few campers, a park ranger, and a deer spotted a week or two ago, the island is empty. It would be easy to forget you were in Boston were it not for the dozen egg-shaped-tanks in the distance, part of the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant.

It is low tide on the beach when the students arrive, and everyone sets out into the water to find and identify periwinkles and Asian shore crabs. Berman yells after them, “Pick up a rock, turn it over. You’ll find an Asian shore crab hiding underneath.” Sure enough, yelps can soon be heard as the tiny crabs start scuttling over waders’ toes.

After class, students copy their notes and observations to the class blog. Today they have discovered and physically handled mussels, barnacles, tunicates, different kinds of crabs, periwinkle snails and tree snails, even a small lobster. When they encounter something they can’t readily identify, they have to spend time researching it, relying on field guides, and routinely using tide tables, charts, and maps. Berman doesn’t allow them to be “squishy” about their identifications.

“I like this class because it gives me the chance to really see Boston in a way I normally wouldn’t have the chance to,” says Jupiter, Fla., native Clinton Trotta (MET’12), who is studying business management. “I took it because I spent a lot of time in the water back home, but I was really surprised to learn that Boston has the cleanest urban beaches.”

“This class is a lot of fun,” says Elizabeth Fay, an educational support assistant at the School of Dental Medicine, who routinely takes a class each semester. “It’s amazing to see the harbor. I grew up in the Boston area, and I remember when I was younger and learning how to sail in Boston Harbor, and they’d yell, ‘Don’t fall in.’ Now, look at us. We’re all walking around and the water’s clean.”

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu. Joseph Chan can be reached at joechan@bu.edu.

Amy Laskowski, Senior Writer at Boston University Marketing & Communications editorial department
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

2 Comments on One Class, One Day: Understanding Boston Harbor

  • Mary Ducharme on 08.04.2011 at 10:19 am

    Snails to Whales

    I took this class Summer 2010 and it is still my favorite class and professor! Glad to see that Bruce has still got it! Everyone should take this class!

  • Zhao Shanshan (Sally Zhao) on 09.09.2011 at 4:27 pm

    It is really a meaningful article for me. As a new graduate student in BU who has never been to Boston before, I gradually begin to understand the significant importance of harbor and even the aquatic life to a coastal city like Boston.

    Boston harbor, I think, is a great place to travel, to release and to learn. With the fast developing of economic, protecting environment is placed a significant status for humans. As is known to everyone, sewage is a common pollution dilemma for protecting especially for some developing countries like my hometown China. China nowadays has a charming speed of economic increasing, but the speed of environmental improvement has not the same pace. I am wondering that China should establish as much as organizations as the U.S. has to help restore environment and decrease the situation of discrepancy.

    To be honest, I don not know much about science exactly. And unfortunately, there is little knowledge to obtain in books from my hometown’s education system. In other words, I have to say that there is a distance that should not be overlooked between my daily life and the science area.

    To some degree, it is better to have a deep understanding of one thing or one item for a student . There are diverse ways to achieve. Admittedly, learning at the classroom is considerable important to the students. However, from what I read above, I think we should go outside and close to the gorgeous sceneries with nature. In my opinion, observations and researches are both the efficient methods to learn. I can’t help saying that I am eager to the outdoor class for deep learning and I am ready for the outside class with professor Berman and my classmates.

    Why not go outside and have a wonderful experience?

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