APPLEDORE ISLAND, MAINE – Imagine a classroom where the sky’s the limit; a classroom immersed in the natural world where daily assignments require examinatIon of starfish in the palm of your hand and exploration of organisms coexisting in an intertidal pool by reaching in and pulling out a giant snail, a tiny crab or a burrowing barnacle.
Consider an open-air classroom where ocean meets land, where the endless soundtrack is a cacophony of seabirds, crashing waves, barking harbor seals.
A classroom so compelling, students remain unplugged from social media by instinct and reach for their phones only to capture a moment.
Such a classroom exists six miles off the Portsmouth coast, IN Maine. Shoals Marine Laboratory has, for many years, provided hands-on learning for college and high school students privileged to attend, who are interested in marine biology and careers that support the intricate oceanic ecosystem and related research fields.
Last week, a group of 15 Manchester School District rising seniors and two science teachers were invited to experience this unique learning environment, a first for any inner-city high school students. The trip was sponsored by UNH alumnus and board member Morgan Rutman and his wife Tara, who believe that creating a pathway to such a program for those who otherwise might not have one is vitally important – especially in a world turning its attention toward the green revolution, a decentralized power grid, ecology, sustainability and global warming.
Through their relationship on the UNH board, Rutman sought out educator and former Manchester Mayor Bob Baines to help him orchestrate a pilot program for students and educators from the district. Baines was on it. He assisted in connecting the dots, and district officials engaged teachers to help recruit students from all three high schools for the five-day course at Shoals. The students will receive a half-credit in science for their participation.
The Rutmans hope this pilot program will be integrated into the school district’s offerings, a way to provide college credit for participants through Shoals’ existing relationship with the University of New Hampshire’s Marine Science program, and gain support from outside funders. The Rutmans will continue to fund the pilot for a few more rounds.
According to Shoals Marine Lab director Jennifer Seavey, the cost of the week-long program is about $26,000 and includes room and board for two teachers, two Ph.D. scientists and 15 students who work and live together in on-site housing. While there they follow the rules of sustainability, which include a limit of two showers weekly, use of composting toilets and making sure nothing goes to waste, including leftovers from meals, which are sorted and recycled accordingly.
As proof of concept, on Aug. 11 a small group including the Rutmans, Baines, UNH President Jim Dean, Mike Decelle, Dean of UNH Manchester, representatives of the NH Charitable Foundation and the Bean Foundation, Mayor Joyce Craig, plus several school officials from Manchester district and the university system, boarded the John M. Kingsbury research vessel and navigated to the island for a first-hand look at the students in their element.
VIDEO BELOW: Scenes from the Aug. 11 tour of the Shoals Science Lab in action with Manchester students.
The “tourists” were greeted by the students who bubbled with enthusiasm over what was repeatedly referred to as a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience on the island. Megan Noble, from Central High School, said she was struck most by the importance of sustainability. Evalyn Davis and Juhi Khadka, both from Memorial, echoed Megan’s sentiments.
“They compost everything in the kitchen, and composting is an easy and affordable option. Even the composting toilet isn’t so bad,” said Evalyn, who thinks the district should do more to incorporate composting into school life.
Juhi said she has become more aware of human impact on nature through her experiences.
“We learned that the cod here used to be 150 pounds, but due to overfishing they’re only about 10-inches long on average,” Juhi said. “Can you imagine a cod that’s bigger than me?”
Megan confirmed that she has only used her phone to talk to her parents before bedtime and send photos.
“Otherwise, we’re unplugged,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s been cool to be outside all day and get off the phone. The activities here are the most I’ve done all summer,” said Evalyn. “And all the stress of summer work and college next year, I haven’t thought about it once. We’re all so calm here,” she said. As far as summer work, she said she had to decline three babysitting jobs. Juhi pushed a job interview forward a few weeks, until after the island trip.
“I’ve learned more about sustainability in these five days than I ever have in all my education – never as in-depth as we’ve seen here,” Evalyn said.
Juhi said before the program she had dialed back her aspirations to be a doctor, thinking perhaps nursing was more realistic.
“But after this, I want to go into biology. I have more confidence now,” she said.
Students also said they were excited to participate in data gathering. Through that experience, Sadie Mae “Helena” Jackson said she was awakened to the ethics of engineering.
Although she’s leaning toward astrophysics, the experience showed her the integral relationship between engineering and science.
“You need this kind of hands-on experience to actually learn,” Helena said. “Getting more hands-on experience in school in any discipline would be an improvement.”
She said the program was more life-changing than she anticipated.
“I was nervous and worried I wouldn’t know what to do but it exceeded my expectations. Getting that hands-on connection is everything,” Helena said.
Finley Morrison, of Memorial High School, said they weren’t sure what to expect.
“I felt living in Manchester there was a limitation on my choices for the future. But this experience was mind-opening and jaw-dropping,” they said. “It helped me decide to learn more about sustainability and see what’s out there, in terms of careers.”
During the week the students also got to meet Sami Chang, who was on rotation through the marine lab’s artist in residence program. Chang said she leveraged her artistic skills and interest in science to become a freelance science illustrator. She engaged the students in workshops on sketching the wildlife as another way of gaining deeper understanding and appreciation for nature.
“For example, sketching the microhabitats of the tide pool helps you understand how mollusks look when they’re alive. No one questions how they look when they’re alive – we only know what they look like on our plates,” Chang said. “The workshops allow them to write down their observations and remember what they’ve learned while developing a new skill set.”
The program was also eye-opening for the two science teachers who attended, Cassie Thomas from Memorial and MaryKate Hartwell from West.
“As a teacher I wanted to be in a place where I could make the most impact,” Thomas said, working to contain her emotions. “I come from an immigrant family where I was taught about hard work, ‘you’ll sleep when you’re dead,’ mentality. “And my 20 years with Manchester schools has been phenomenal, but I felt like I was getting stale, even before COVID.”
Thomas said her style of teaching has always been hands-on “messy and dirty,” whether working with enzymes or buffer labs.
“Programs like this, keeping teachers current and relevant so we can be excited, are needed,” Thomas said, a chance to “break the chains” of how things have been done for decades so that education can be inspiring and elevate both teachers and students.
Seavey said the summer program provides a bridge between science, educators and the public. She acknowledged that opening up the windows and doors of opportunity for all New Hampshire students, regardless of where they live or what kinds of educational opportunities they can afford, is a worthwhile endeavor.
“There’s a lot of privileges around field science. There are barriers – financial barriers. Engineering is way more straightforward to careers than marine science,” Seavey said.
Program Assistant Director David Buck said the idyllic program is not without needs.
“The Kingsbury boat you all road in on, you can’t buy parts for it anymore. This summer during the Coast Guard inspection there were some issues that came up,” Buck said. He also noted that it would be nice to have separate housing for faculty and students, who currently cohabitate. “We could use that kind of infrastructure,” he added, when asked about the needs of the program.
Rutman wanted to hear directly from the students so he could understand the value to them of the experience. After a 30-minute listening session, Rutman told the students that this would not be a solitary venture for them.
“We’re going to follow up with you all and make sure we see you through. This is not a one-off opportunity,” Rutman said. “You guys self-selected You showed courage to try something different. You’re explorers. We’re proud you are risk-takers and opportunity-seekers. If any of you need assistance as you move toward college admissions and your future, we want to be here for you.”
To learn more about Shoals Marine Lab programming, including public walking tours, overnight excursions and the Clare Thaxter garden tours, visit shoalsmarinelaboratory.org.
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