Wild Mussel Chase

I’m doing this pilot program with the 11th graders called FLEXE: From Local to Extreme Environments.  It’s run by NASA, open to 7-12th grade classes around the world, and in theory it’s cool. Basically, students learn about various key scientific concepts (i.e. the importance of curiosity/inquiry/investigation, observation, effects of change, adaptation, ecosystems, food webs, etc.) by comparing an intense deep sea environment (mega pressure, extremely cold, no light) with their own local environment. Students complete activities in small groups, and then go online every few weeks to post responses to real scientists (who then give generalized feedback several weeks later). 

Generic web find

Several impeding factors:

-  Lack of technology: The first time that the 11th graders went to the computer lab to view the “Scientist’s Greeting” online, we exceeded our bandwidth and essentially crashed all the computers). Needless to say, we can’t see any of the supplementary videos, and we were unable to post responses online before the link closed.

-  Lack of resources/time: The program calls for printing multiple copies of multiple handouts for each student. It’s hard enough printing anything here, and if you want copies, you have to submit the forms about two weeks in advance (and pray). Also, the program is supposed to be conducted in about three science classes a week (whereas we have only one class a week).

-  Lack of motivation: The majority of these 11th graders aren't too interested in this environmental education class, much less about cold seep ecology. I’ve been trying to frame the classes in a way that emphasizes how and why we can relate this obscure location to a local environment that they know well, for the ultimate purpose of learning how to read/predict/address change. An important part of environmental education is focusing on local issues and not just far-flung locales.

Today’s class was the Mussel Lab. We were to dissect locally-obtained mussels, weighing internal organs, and then comparing the relative gill mass to that of deep sea mussels (apparently, the deep sea ones will have a significantly larger mass; they’ve adapted to have a symbiotic relationship with sugar-producing bacteria that live in the gills).

Challenge #1: Find the mussels.

The FLEXE director had talked about collecting mussels ourselves, but while Monteverde is host to innumerable species and habitats, it is not known for its intertidal zones (we are a cloud forest).

Thus, the Wild Mussel Hunt commences.

Challenge #2: Use the right word.

I asked the first five-ish people if they had any idea where I could obtain muscles (musculos) instead of mollusks (molluscos). So that was a good start. Even after fixing this, there was still confusion about clams vs. oysters vs. mussels vs. mollusks vs. bivalves. Not positive that I overcame this challenge entirely. Charades was utilized thoroughly.

Stop #1: Super-Compro

The supermarket in downtown Santa Elena had jumbo bags of frozen mixed mariscos (seafood) for sale, but each $6 bag had only about three mussels, mixed with lots of crab, clams and octopus.

Stop #2: Mega Super

This is the new, vaguely WalMart reminiscent supermarket up a big hill. Nothing but more frozen mixed mariscos here. The owner, however, gives me an insider’s tip to check in with one of the seafood restaurants downtown.

Stop #3: El Campesino  (Seafood Restaurant)

Tengo una pregunta quizas un poco extrana…” I begin.

Digame,” says the waitress, stowing the menus back behind the desk.

When I ask about mussels (cupping my hands and hinging them to act out the shell), she calls out to the owner. I repeat the question, and he shakes his head mournfully. He tells me they only have fish and lobster. However, he’ll be going to the port town of Puntarenas tomorrow; would I like him to pick some up? He scribbles his name and cell number on a slip of paper for me. Unfortunately, the dissection lab is tomorrow, so I don’t think it will work out.

Stop #4: Mar y Tierra.

Given that mar, sea, was a part of this restaurant’s name, I had a good feeling. By now, I had already run through my spiel once, so I felt well-rehearsed. Conversation included below, translated into English.

Elissa: I have a question that might be a little odd…

Waiter: Yes?

Elissa: Well, I teach at the Cloud Forest School and we’re looking for mussels to dissect for one of our science experiments. I was wondering whether you might have any…

Waiter: Yes.

Elissa: YES?!?!?!

Waiter: How many do you need?

Elissa: (thinking 2 per group, plus a few extras): Maybe 14?

Waiter: (disappears into the kitchen for a few minutes, then comes back out): Sorry, the cook says that we’re running low and we need them for a special rice dish for tonight.

E: (feel it slipping from between my fingers) What about only 6 mussels?

W: Let me check (he does). Okay, she says yes. Right this way.

E: (I follow him into the back room. The cook is putting these huge shellfish into a bag for me.) Ooh la la!

Cook: These ones are big and tasty.

Elissa: What are they, exactly?

Cook: They’re called Chilean mussels.

Elissa: (starts to get bad feeling) Where are they from, exactly?

Cook: Chile.

Elissa: (uh oh. The whole point of this is that the mussels must be local) Uhh….do you have any other mussel-like animals? It’s okay if they’re smaller.

Cook: Of course! (Ruffles around, and lifts out a plastic bag of similar-looking creatures. Printed on the side of the bag: Product of New Zealand).

Elissa: Ummmm….do you have anything from Puntarenas, by any chance?

Cook: Definitely! (Reaches down and yanks up some frozen lobster-crabby completely-non-mussel-y thing).

Stop #4: Restaurante Marquez

This is the last seafood restaurant in town, so I’m crossing my fingers as I walk in and recite the now-well-oiled lines. The waiter tells me that they DO have mussels.

Elissa: Are they from Chile or New Zealand, by any chance?

Waiter: Of course not! They’re from Puntarenas!

And so, I walk home with my little baggie of 14 mussels (or at least some sort of black shelled bivalve that will soon sacrifice its already-dead body in the name of scientific inquiry).

View from the far side of town