No desks, no blackboards, and not a textbook in sight. Hans Toft has melted away the walls of his natural sciences classroom at Cape May County Technical School to create a land where the wild things are.
Fresh and saltwater fish, caught by the school’s students, swim in dozens of tanks atop lab tables. Eels twirl along the floor of an indoor pond. Sand sharks dance on the surface of a five-foot pool like dolphins begging treats at Sea World.
But the real treats, students say, come when they harvest the fish. They pull Tilapia and sea bass, crabs, oysters and clams from the waters of the micro-commercial fisheries that they operate just outside the classroom walls. Then, with the help of the school’s culinary department, they whip up a seafood feast and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“They eat pretty well around here,” Toft said, but its food for thought, as well. Toft says that once students make the connection to the ocean’s bounty, there is little to stop the burgeoning naturalists from trying to find out more.
Sophomores catch and dissect critters in the wetlands beyond the school to learn more about the food web – essentially who eats whom. In the woods outside their classroom, juniors built hideouts to spy mammals on the prowl for their next meal. Seniors row self-made canoes into the bay to harvest crops of shellfish from traps and oyster beds that line the water.
On a sunny October day, the students, acted as expert tour guides of the schools wildlife campus for the Herald’s video camera. (See them in action at www.capemaycountyherald.com.) Some wore snakes around their arms and shoulders, (classroom pets), as they talked about their hands-on approach to learning. They explained what it’s like to pull nets, heavy with tilapia from a huge breeding pool. Tilapia are “filthy” compared to other breeds of fish, they say.
On a walk along the wetlands, they snatch fiddler crabs out of the mucky sea grass and quickly determined their sex. The males have a single super-sized claw, according to one student guide.
And from the perch of a wooden deck overlooking the wetlands, they point out the osprey nests and nesting boxes for kestrel hawks that they build and monitor. They can also name the birds that alight on the horizon.
“When it gets cold, we see eagles up here,” Matt Hamer said. “We also saw red tails breeding, doing their courtship dance.”
“You can’t learn this kind of stuff out of a book,” student Jade Seltzer said.
Toft describes it as inquiry-based education, where kids work within real life situations, and they are charged with caring for creatures and using science and research to help them thrive. In some cases, they learn to sink or swim the hard way, like during the collaborative project where they carved Indian canoes out of logs with an American history class.
“They do float,” Toft says…if you have the balance of a surfer.
The lessons about conservation and working with the environment are crucial, and marketable, Toft says. “First-off, it connects them to the environment. Then they learn that a clean ocean supports people, feeds people and employs people,” he said.
Most of the seniors say they‘ve applied to college and are mulling over their options, but they have many, Toft says. He can recite a laundry list. Wildlife biologists, marine biologists, oceanographers, wastewater managers, environmental tour guides, sport and commercial fishers, surveyors or geographical information and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technicians are all job opportunities that exist for individuals with the preliminary skills his students learn. The world is their oyster…literally.