Students Get Hands-On Science Lesson

The Meadowlands Environment Center in Lyndhurst hosts 20,000 students from 84 school districts each year.

By Brenda Flanagan

“I got a fish! My achievement!” said Jordan Rivera.

Shouts from excited freshman Rivera who scored a minnow. Other students from Bergen Technical High School crowded around their ecology teacher at this special science class — outdoors at the Meadowlands Environment Center in Lyndhurst.

Does Rivera know what kind of fish he caught? “I have no idea,” he said.

“You might find this at bait shops, sometimes. This is a killifish. Or sometimes bait shops just call them minnows,” said Susan Lewicki, Meadowlands Environment Center senior educator.

“Some schools just teach you regular stuff, giving you paperwork, but they teach you hands-on. This is beautiful,” Rivera said.

These kids from Paramus happily got their hands muddy, catching small fry and studying the Hackensack River estuary up close and personal. The tank filled with fish. Winning technique?

“You have to take your time, and you just have to get them. You have to launch out there like a cat,” said sophomore Ayshea Haywood.

“You just learn better when you’re really experiencing it. And I think it’s just so much easier touching the water and seeing actually what you’re learning, than just reading it from a book,” said sophomore Tonie Lepore.

Their regular teacher loves it, too.

“I don’t have to say, ‘Put the phone away.’ I don’t see any phones. This is great. This is the best day of my school day this year,” said Maryann Fahey, special education science teacher at Bergen Technical High School.

“They really are functioning as environmental scientists,” said Angela Cristini, Meadowlands Environment Center director.

Ramapo College Biology Professor Cristini runs the 15-year-old program. Every year, some 20,000 students from 84 school districts learn not just how to handle fish, but also how to measure the water’s turbidity, salinity and acidity.

“I’m an environmental scientist and what I do is I come out and before I go and look for the crabs I work with, I make sure that I know the water temperature, the salinity, the temperature. That’s all a really important part of being a scientist,” she said.

In winter, kids study engineering green buildings, and sky watch in the Environment Center’s observatory. Storms offer other opportunities.

“On occasion, because we’re talking about water levels around here, and flooding, at some point, climate change, sea level rise comes up. Ecology is the science that puts all the other sciences together,” Lewicki said.

Ramapo staffs the program, in cooperation with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which today voted unanimously to renew its funding — $500,000 plus the program keeps all fees. It charges $15 per student, but several grants allow some schools to attend for free. Cristini told the authority she wants to grow the program and she reached out to Newark.

“I would dearly love to do a partnership with some schools from Newark, some public schools from Newark,” she said.

A couple of Newark charter schools now participate, but public schools never responded. They’re missing a real treat.

Haywood said she’s learning, “About life. It’s about life and about how you have to catch your dreams out there. That’s dreams.”

The class rule out here is, it’s not a good day unless you get muddy. And pretty much everyone out here had a very good day.