If you were to drive east on Chef Menteur Highway, past the motley blocks of businesses in various states of well-being, past the Pleasantville-on-stilts development at Venetian Isles, and over the rickety truss bridge at Chef Menteur Pass, eventually you’d find a three-story waterfront building emblazoned with a comically large University of New Orleans (UNO) Privateer logo.
There, you might find, as I did, a large group of squirming third-graders vastly outnumbering their adult chaperones, all anxious to start one of science educator and UNO Coastal Education Program director Dinah Maygarden’s activities at the UNO Coastal Education and Research Facility (CERF).
On the day I visit, Maygarden leads one of five rotating workshops for a Langston Hughes Academy field trip. A group of about 10 kids huddles on the stairs on the interior side of the facility that faces the marsh, like a dock. Maygarden explains how they’ll make observations about the glittering green water in front of them.
“This water is connected to all the other water around here,” she tells them, in the crisp accent that reveals her English background. “You have these wonderful data collection centers called eyes. You can go closer to the water, but there are some rules.”
Kids storm the dock and peer into the murky green depths, taking care not to step into the “danger zone” past the safety railings. Someone asks if alligators can live in the marshes (answer: yes). After they finish making observations, the group will take part in a simple experiment, in which they use an instrument called a Secchi disc. It’s a flat circle, about the size of the bottom of a Coke can, with a black and white pattern on it. Scientists use it to measure the clarity of water. When the pattern starts or stops being visible through water, they can take a measurement.
Maygarden, a 19-year veteran of UNO, has been creating similar educational activities at CERF since the facility opened six years ago. CERF is part of UNO's Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences; the building that now houses the CERF organization was once a set of three waterfront condos. It was one of only a few area structures to survive Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures.
These days, Maygarden basically runs the show at the facility. She coordinates with partner groups like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Louisiana Outdoors Outreach Program, plans activities for grant-funded groups, maintains the building, and helps keep the organization’s shoestring budget in the black — in addition to the coastal processes undergraduate class she’s currently teaching at UNO.
It's a full plate reflecting her lifelong interest in science and, later on, teaching. As a young girl, Maygarden collected snails; in high school she took a memorable week-long biology field trip to take part in simple experiments like transects (a kind of naturalistic observation of a specific area) at a South England field station.
She began to incorporate science education activities into her curriculum earlier in her career, when she taught a group of students with behavior issues. A trip to a nature center helped reach students who normally had difficulty focusing. That realization inspired what she does today.
“[Being here] can do to things to their behavior. One, it can make [students] go loopy; but sometimes when they’re out of their natural environment … it’s a lot more valuable than being in the classroom banging their heads on the wall,” she says.
CERF activities for younger groups are mostly focused on discovery and introduction to basic scientific concepts. In addition to measuring water clarity, the Langston Hughes Academy third graders take part in a discussion of the food chain and take a close-up look at the minnows and shellfish that make their home around Chef Menteur Pass. Older students go on canoeing trips, use more sophisticated scientific equipment and engage in longer-term science research projects. Sometimes they take part in science overnights at the center, where they sleep in bunk beds and cots like they're away at summer camp.
Many of the students who come to see Maygarden live in the city, rarely experience rural environments, and are often surprised to learn that the more remote areas around CERF are still part of New Orleans. But aside from countering disbelief that New Orleans East is still New Orleans, one of Maygarden’s major challenges is overcoming teenage apathy.
“Fourth and fifth and sixth graders, they know so much and they ask these really great questions,” she says. “Curiosity unfortunately fades away when they get older … high school students can be very detached, so then you’re not quite sure if you’ve gotten anywhere with them.”
That isn’t a problem today, when little hands shoot up to answer Maygarden’s questions. (“What’s the large body of water that runs through our city?” “The ocean!” one student replies confidently.) Everyone wants to take part in the activity, in which Maygarden pours cloudy marsh water into an instrument called a clarity tube.
“It’ll be really interesting to see what these kids took away today … I’d love to be a fly on the wall when they talk about it,” Maygarden says.Gambit's "On the Clock" series takes a look at the workday of a New Orleanian with an unconventional job. Have an interesting job, or know someone who does? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with tips.