A Talk With Living Breakwaters Citizen Advisory Member Debra Amoroso


Mentoring Future Scientists Through Experiential Learning

For Debra Amoroso, a New York City public school teacher for the past ten years, it’s all about instilling a love of science in her students through experiential learning.  Her favorite teaching laboratory has always been New York City’s waterways and beaches.

Amoroso grew up in Tottenville, graduated from Tottenville High School, and went on to major in science in college. She got a job on Wall Street during the years when people with skills in computer technology were in relatively short supply. “I got drawn into making money and I went far with it,” she recalls. “But at the back of my head it wasn’t me. I used to do science experiments with my kids at home and one day my daughter said, ‘you should be a teacher, mom.’  So I left Wall Street and I went through the New York City Teaching Fellow program. It was the best move I ever made except having my family.”

Today, as a teacher at Intermediate School 24 in Great Kills, Amoroso is always finding ways to connect her students with their marine environment. She takes them on field trips to the New York Aquarium and has lugged oyster colonies on public transit from Governors Island to Great Kills for planting as part of the Billion Oyster project.  She runs an ongoing citizen science program testing the heavily polluted waters of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

I feel strongly if kids are exposed to these kinds of experiences in their middle school years it will carry forward to a lifetime love of learning in science.

“We are lacking it so much in America now. Not enough of our college students are studying science; we have to gather them from other countries. But when my students dissect a shark I see how much it resonates with them.  They come back and tell me after they leave my class that it started them on the path to be a surgeon or a biologist.  That is what it is all about.”

Inspired by Living Breakwaters

Amoroso connected with Living Breakwaters when her principal forwarded an email about a meeting to be held about the project at New Dorp High School in January 2014.  She was immediately enthused.  “What an experience it will be, I thought, to go to Living Breakwaters and show my students how this helps to take down some of the wave action hitting our shores,” she relates. “At the meeting they talked about education being a whole part of it and having an education hub and hands-on learning.  It was so exciting!  I thought, ‘I don’t have to go over the Verrazano Bridge to teach my kids.  And they will get to really experience that we are an island surrounded by water.’  It seemed like a big thing.” She joined the Living Breakwaters Citizen Advisory Commission in the spring of 2014.

Seeing the Big Picture

Amoroso understands the reservations of some folks whose properties abut the planned shoreline pathways or are in line of site of the breakwaters to be constructed as part of the Living Breakwaters. But she hopes her neighbors can rise above their negativity.

Overall you have to look at the big picture. We are a community. Sometimes you have to look beyond what directly affects you and see how it can be beneficial in the long run to everyone else.

She notes that Sandy claimed two lives in Tottenville. “If we can prevent that from happening again that is the most valuable thing we can ever do,” she maintains. “ And Living Breakwaters isn’t about putting up a wall. It is making a living, breathing reef that can help put back what used to be there.  And the oysters that will be planted will help our environment.  They are an unbelievable filtration system.” 

Another reason to support the project is a much more pragmatic one, she notes.

“I don’t know how it is escaping people that their flood insurance rates might go down for all this.” Although she lives near the Tottenville shore in an area that is 50 feet above sea level she says many others at lower elevations are paying astronomical rates for insurance.  Some can no longer even obtain it.

Thoughts About Where to Site the Educational Hub

Amoroso likes the idea of a floating hub but is concerned that it might be difficult for the public schools to accept the liability of students going out on the water in a boat.  She thinks an ideal location for the Living Breakwaters hub would be off the shore of the Mount Loretto Unique area, away from residential development and with ample parking.  “It would be easy to put a hub down there to connect to the water,” she reports. “You have a lot of geologic landscape the kids can take notice of…there is the hill on the top and on the beach you can see the different soils and all the artifacts from when Mt. Loretto was an orphanage. And the one thing you can really see is the amount of erosion that has happened.”

“I tell my students, ‘look for the evidence,’” she elaborates.  “Our beaches are being destroyed by the weather and the forecast is we will have more of those bad storms. It is all the more reason to look for something to do to help decrease the power of that wave action so we don’t get as much erosion.”

My students are developing problem-solving skills. And as the saying goes: ‘One spider can’t take down a lion but if they all weave a web together they can.’

Experiential Learning, and Scientists as Community Builders

Amoroso will talk to anyone who will listen about the value of getting her students outside the classroom. “I could put videos up for them to watch, but to be out there and get involved with their own hands, it is invaluable.” she insists.  “They can be the scientists in the world.  Not everyone will be Michael Jordan or the next financial billionaire.   I am reaching those kids that really aren’t the athletes, the dancers or cheerleaders. This is the kind of work our kids can take ownership of and build a career on—scientists get paid well and they also give back to the community.  Your jobs on Wall Street are diminishing but scientists will always be in demand. We will always need minds to be curious and creative and to have a sense of wonder.”