Eighth Grade Science: The Harpswell Crab Lab

Vaughn Ross ’27  took uncertain but methodical steps across the slippery algae-covered rocks during low tide at the bottom of Harpswell Neck, a finger of land that protrudes into the Gulf of Maine, just south of Brunswick. His eighth grade science class has been studying invasive crab species in the classroom, but today he’s about to encounter the real thing. A little nervous and not knowing what to expect, he lifted a greasy patch of seaweed, jumping back as he revealed a speedy and evasive green crab.
If you’ve waded in a tidal pool along the coast of Maine in the past few decades, you’ve likely witnessed the explosion of European Green and Asian Shore crab populations firsthand. Nearly every overturned rock reveals at least one of these invasive species that are devastating the ecosystem of the Maine coastline.

Will these populations continue to grow out of control and destroy the eelgrass habitats that adolescent lobsters rely on? That’s just one of the many questions that The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) has committed to investigating.

Through their Ecosystem Investigation Network, GMRI is engaging students all over Maine to contribute to projects like this one. Student-gathered data will fuel their studies, and in turn, the public becomes educated about the growing list of global problems we’re seeing locally in Maine.

“I’m always looking for ways to incorporate authentic science into my curriculum,” says Gould Eighth Grade Science Teacher Sarah Crockett.

She is no stranger to the Maine coast. She grew up camping and boating in Casco Bay. Lobstering and digging clams and mussels are in her blood. When she learned about the GMRI classroom projects, she jumped at the opportunity to get her students into the field.

“Not only are hands-on experiences like this lab fun and engaging for students, but it’s also crucial for them to learn the skills for carrying out investigations, and then analyzing and interpreting the data they collect.”

After the first few precarious crabs were captured in the name of science, Vaughn and his classmates perfected the process and were quickly snatching samples without worry.

“Once we collected them, we had to identify the crab,” he explains. “Is it native? Is it invasive? What’s the sex?”

Vaughn was quick to grasp the meaning beyond the surface purpose of the field study.

“[We didn’t find] a single native crab during the trip. And green crabs were abundant. It’s a real danger for clamming in Maine. Green crabs are eating away at our soft-shelled clam business. If this isn’t put in check it will affect our economy. In the end, it was good to know that we provided more data for research. I [also] feel better prepared to take on other scientific research in the future.”

Never wasting an opportunity, the eighth-graders put the lengthy bus trip back to campus to good use as well. Singing along with Taylor Swift at the top of their lungs added a little levity to the day. You need to step back from the research every now and then, or you’re bound to get crabby. 🦀

Private High School for Boys and Girls | Grades 9-12, Postgraduate and Winter Term for Grades 7-8 | Boarding School in the Mountains of Maine

Gould Academy guides students to be creative, courageous and resilient and to lead lives of fulfillment and purpose.