Oysters have their strong points. They’re quiet, independent, and they rarely ever complain. They don’t mind getting dirty, and, perhaps most importantly, they’re tasty with a squirt of lemon juice or Tabasco. Of all the things that oysters are, however, they are rarely thought of as good teachers.

Until now.

For more than seven years, oysters have helped teach a dedicated group of middle schoolers everything from report writing to complex equations in a busy ground floor laboratory overlooking Teel Cove. The education program at Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde is helping St. George School students learn the three R’s and more, all with the help of one of Maine’s most famous mollusks.

“I love being a part of the oyster growing process at Herring Gut,” said Logan Jones, a sixth grader and a third-generation lobsterman. “I love the hands-on work – I really like being able to work, learn, and have fun at the same time.”

Herring Gut, which takes its name from the original moniker of the town now known as Port Clyde, was founded in 1999 by Phyllis Wyeth, who wanted to provide new learning opportunities to fishing families in Maine’s small coastal towns. The oyster program, which began in a small space inside Marshall Point Sea Farm, now boasts its own full-fledged oyster facility, complete with all the bells and whistles one would expect in a commercial aquaculture operation. Begun nearly ten years ago with just seven students and a dream, the program has since turned out more than 100 graduates, whose self confidence has grown right along with the shellfish.

The latest group of sixth, seventh and eighth grade students participating in the oyster program are discovering their strengths every day as they coddle the infant oysters from a murky blend of microscopic eggs and sperm to fingernail-sized oyster spat, ready for seeding in a local cove or mud flat. Part of the MSAD 50 alternative education program taught by Jim Masterson of St. George, they receive a large part of their overall curriculum in the oyster labs and classrooms at Herring Gut.

“With the many responsibilities the students have in the oyster hatchery, they learn the skills they need to start a job and finish it, which is a great skill to carry into adulthood,” said Masterson.

These days, oysters are just the tip of the iceberg at Herring Gut, where students from more than half a dozen Midcoast schools enjoy hands-on activities that allow them to make meaningful connections between classroom concepts and real-life applications. With full-scale aquaculture systems that feature tilapia and two types of trout, numerous experimental systems that support both freshwater and marine organisms, a greenhouse full of fish-waste fueled vegetables, and an impressive collection of state-of-the-art technologies, the nonprofit school offers plenty of opportunities for students to find new avenues to learning.

While it’s easy to envision a program that uses the nuts and bolts of aquaculture to teach concepts about fish anatomy or filtration systems, many who are unfamiliar with Herring Gut and its programs are surprised to find out just how much can be taught using aquaculture as a springboard.

Planning and organizational skills are critical to the success of the oyster business, and students learn early that the lives of millions of tiny oysters depend on them for food, shelter and protection. The process begins in early fall with the challenging task of growing healthy algae cultures in anticipation of the babies’ arrival, requiring considerable skill in mathematics, communications, and laboratory protocols.

“In the algae lab, we have been growing algae to feed the oysters,” said Nick Hodgdon, an eighth grader in his second year of the program. “We start out with a small sample and raise more by transferring the new algae into bigger and bigger containers. There’s a lot that has to be done.”

The program stresses literacy as well, requiring each participant to write business reports and updates on their progress. Related readings and research projects also help prepare them for the challenges of high school and beyond.

A recent visit by Sen. Susan Collins put the students’ communication skills to the test. Leading a tour of the oyster hatchery, they clearly proved that they were up to the challenge regardless of the audience by providing the senator with a clear overview of their work.

“Senator Collins’s visit was a great opportunity for the students to share what they have been able to accomplish in the oyster hatchery,” said Herring Gut Executive Director Jeffry Chase, who has been the lead instructor of the program since its inception. “These kids are proud of what they have done. They’ve not only become experts in oyster aquaculture, they have become more successful, more confident students as well.”

“It’s a lot of work, but I like it,” said eighth grader Keagan McWilliams. “I’ve reinforced my writing and math skills, and I’ve learned a lot of science dealing with the algae and the oysters. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to be a part of this program.”

Ultimately, the class will find a buyer for the juvenile oysters who will grow them to market size at select locations along the coast, shipping the tasty crop across the country within a few short years. The money they earn from the sale will be used to purchase new equipment and supplies that will help to ensure their businesses’ success the following season.

The skills that they learn along the way will help ensure their success in life.

David Munson teaches marine science and aquaculture at Herring Gut Learning Center and serves as the school’s director of communications.