The Little Ocean in the Big School

Jordan Kates, Contributing Writer

In a high-tech laboratory, the smell of sea salt permeates through the air, and aliens keep their subjects in tanks. Some of the subjects are bumpy, some smooth. They resemble rocks, trees, flowers, and even jelly. Even under the blue glow of the lights, they dazzle in myriad neon colors. Unbeknownst to these corals, the high school students grow them to save the world, one chopped off branch at a time.

West Hartford’s Hall High School has a unique science lab where a group of 30-40 students, plus their mentor, grow and harvest some of the only coral found in Connecticut. Under the guidance of the school’s marine science and oceanography teacher, Mr. Anthony Wasley, The Hall High Coral Project thrives, and they want their coral to do the same. Four large tanks house their coral -which is made up of colonial animals called polyps- which grow under UV lights, cloning themselves and expanding their calcium carbonate exoskeletons. Because of their asexual reproduction, corals can be “Fragged”, a term in the coral hobbyist community in which a coral piece gets broken off, and attached somewhere else, where they can grow into whole new corals. The group’s goal is to oppose the extinction of corals by growing their own, keeping wild corals from being pulled from the ocean, which harms the delicate ecosystems.

The club started their goal of global conservation by selling these “Frags” at special events, where the money they made from selling their wares were used to upgrade their school tanks, and spread awareness about coral bleaching, in which the warming ocean is killing the sensitive polyps. However, once COVID began, the club developed a new method of raising awareness. Using Google Meets, the club gave virtual tours of their corals to elementary and middle school classes in town. Children could learn about symbiotic relationships, coral bleaching, and more, “West Hartford Public Schools fifth grade teacher Michelle Sullivan appreciated being able to schedule a tank tour for her class…‘Because the field trip was live, my kids were able to ask questions and comment during the presentation, which is not often the case during a virtual field trip (most are pre recorded). One of my students even said, ‘I am totally doing that when I get to Hall’’”.

Now, the club has decided to build off the success of their tours, and give West Hartford children a more direct way to learn about corals, and build their appreciation. After weeks of research, the club has started plans to establish smaller tanks in elementary school classrooms, and give the kids their coral and fish to take care of. The club will provide materials such as heaters and filters, akin to the kind they use in their 450 gallon system.

The club considers this a major stepping stone in their everlasting journey to save the corals, “Wasley said the goal was to stay true to the club’s mission statement: ‘Education brings awareness and awareness brings change’. But it was hard to bring awareness about coral without people being able to even see the tanks, he said”. Now dreams can become a reality, and soon, these eager kids will enter high school, hopefully growing to appreciate corals as much as the Hall students do.