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Falmouth High School student Rita Sherwood sketches at a Cape Cod beach during a field trip organized by teachers and scientists to visit a local seal colony. (Photo by Jane Baker) [ Hide caption ]

Sand, Seals, and Solitude

Scientists and teachers collaborate to inspire students

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In high school, students interested in art or science often diverge into separate fields. For several years now, an art teacher and scientist in Falmouth, Mass., have seeded a modest cross-pollination project. This year it blossomed into a showcase of art and writing by Falmouth High School students, on display at the Falmouth Museums on the Green Cultural Center until April 10.

It began when Falmouth High School art teacher Jane Baker invited Rebecca Gast, a microbiologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), to tell students about her research on microbes in Antarctica. Gast showed photos of the often spectacular-looking microbes and scenery of the frozen continent. Inspired by the talk and photos, students worked on paintings that were later displayed at WHOI.

Accidentally mixed in with the Antarctic images, however, were pictures of another one of Gast’s research projects, a fast-growing seal population on outer Cape Cod.

“The seals were just so darn cute,” said Baker. “We took her research as a jumping-off point for the next project.”

In September, students from Baker’s art classes and teacher Lauren Kenny’s Advanced Placement English class traveled the length of Cape Cod to a beach where masses of seals congregate in Provincetown, Mass. The project was funded by the Falmouth Education Foundation.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get the kids to Provincetown, because it’s such an artists’ and writers’ haven?’ ” Baker said. “Falmouth kids don’t go down Cape, don’t experience the outer Cape.”

“A lot of people on Cape Cod don’t realize we have such a large grey seal population,” said Gast. Baker said seals were absent when she grew up on the Cape. Indeed, they were hunted until their numbers here were near zero. But since they became protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Cape Cod seal population has rebounded considerably.

Gast joined another WHOI seal researcher, Andrea Bogomolni, and staff from the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown—Lisa Sette and Owen Nichols—who told students about seal ecology.

“The seals are likely here to stay,” Gast said, but that has raised questions about whether seals compete with fishermen for diminishing fish stocks, attract great white sharks, cause fecal pollution, and spread diseases. Gast and Bogomolni are among several local scientists conducting research to answer these questions objectively.

“A real-life ecology experiment is going on here,” Gast said, with challenging societal ramifications.

Before the students went to Provincetown, they also heard a presentation from Cape Cod poet Elizabeth Bradfield, who introduced the students to Haibun, an ancient Japanese writing form. Haibun, Baker joked, is “an early form of blogging” and the students used it to record their experiences on their expedition.

 “The writers had to draw, and the artists had to write,” Baker said. Students painted “plein air” (open air) landscapes and watched and photographed seals. Later they made charcoal drawings, handmade seaweed paper, and a book of Haibun.

These compose the exhibition at the Falmouth museums, called “Sand Dunes, Seals & Solitude.” Along with one more thing …

The group found a quantity of fishnet on the beach and decided to use it to make a great green seal sculpture, complete with whiskers. Gast and Baker attached the netting from the beach—plus more contributed by local fishermen and Gordon Waring, NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center—to student-built armature, and over weeks, the seal took form. They’re hoping it will be included in Provincetown’s Green Arts Festival this spring.

The Falmouth Museums on the Green is open by appointment. The Falmouth Education Foundation supported the project, including the field trip, camera, and supplies. Rebecca Gast’s research on bacteria and seals was supported by Woods Hole Sea Grant. On March 24 the Museums on the Green Cultural Center will host a “Seal-posium” round-table discussion of seals and their role in Cape Cod waters, featuring Gast, Bogomolni, and Waring.

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