HMFH Architects

Labs that give High School Students—and Turtles—a Head Start

At Bristol County Agricultural High School, students in the Natural Resources Management (NRM) program work directly with non-profits and research institutes as well as with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and Massachusetts Division of Wildlife to protect and restore endangered species. HMFH’s design of the Bristol Aggie’s new Center for Science and the Environment, now in construction and opening in January 2021, will house state-of-the-art labs that support the school’s hands-on curriculum.

Visionary career-technical educators like Brian Bastarache, the Natural Resource Management program’s department chair use real-life, hands-on research projects like headstarting endangered turtles (a process of taking in baby turtles in the fall and feeding them a hefty diet throughout the winter to have a better chance of survival in the spring) to teach career skills, nurture students’ curiosity, and ignite a lifelong love of learning. But the school’s existing facilities (pictured, right) pose serious challenges to this mission. HMFH worked closely with Brian and Bristol Aggie students to envision and tailor new spaces for the program’s unique needs and goals. HMFH spent an afternoon on-site with Brian checking in on the construction progress and discussing how the new center will enhance the student learning experience at Bristol Aggie.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tell us about your existing lab spaces. What are some of the shortcomings?

In short, they were not designed for our workbut we’ve made do. We are currently working in a greenhouse, which lacks a lot of basic utilities and it is hard to maintain appropriate temperatures especially during the winter. We’ll really be leveling up once we get into this new building with spaces that have been designed specifically for the work we’re doing. Just having sinks to wash the turtles in will be tremendous.

How do you think the new labs will impact how you and your students do your work?

Biosecurity—reducing the risk of infection—is incredibly important in what we do. A big step in minimizing this risk will be the isolated labs that HMFH helped us plan for the new building. Pandemics are not unique to the human experience. We need to be very careful when we bring animals into our lab because we don’t want to introduce any foreign diseases to the animals that could then be transmitted to their populations, many of which are already endangered or imperiled. With these new labs, not only will we be able to handle more projects, but we’ll be able to hold a greater variety of species that require different conditions, while minimizing the potential to pass pathogens back and forth.

I’m also anticipating that our new facilities will make us more efficient and allow us to accomplish more and pursue more diverse projects. We want our labs to show students proper methodology and practices and serve as a model for the professional standards we encourage our graduates to strive for.

What are you most excited about for the new spaces?

The potential for such a variety of new projects excites me. Every year we do cooperative work with federal and state agencies and non-profit organizationsthe students are right in the thick of these projects. We have done several projects with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—we’ve worked with their Massachusetts and New Jersey divisions for years—the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia. Some of it is cleaning and feeding, but there’s also a lot of data collection, management, and analysis and more research-based tasks. Our new facilities will allow for more of these opportunities and provide an experience that is especially unique for the high school level 

We’ve already received a good deal of interest in the new spaces. A regional manager from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was at a conference discussing rare turtles and was encouraged by an attendee to visit us. We had another person from a nonprofit visit us—he travelled from Manhattan and spent the afternoon touring the facility, talking with our students, and discussing the possibilities of our new labs. We’ve had others find us through Instagram or YouTube. We’ve been asked to be an emergency holder for sea turtles during turtle stranding season (fall and early winter) on Cape Cod, when aquariums are at capacity and just can’t accommodate them all. As the facilities near completion, we are excited to see who calls us next! 

This process has been very educational to me. It’s not just about building a new building—it’s about re-examining what we do and why we do it so that we can build the right building.

Brian BastaracheNatural Resource Management Department Chair, Bristol County Agricultural High School