Hurricane Island Provides Hands-On Coastal Learning Experiences as Part of the Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative

Students in tide pool

“I need a sea urchin!” exclaimed a student as she and a handful of other students excitedly explored tidal pools for marine life to collect in buckets as part of a treasure hunt on Hurricane Island. “Who has a crab?” asked another.

Venturing over to a classroom on the Island, another group of middle school students were learning about aquaculture and the farming of scallops by retrieving spat bags from the ocean and then investigating the contents of the bags for scallops and other items that wandered or were caught inside.

After a brief snack and a stop at their bunks, the students were back together in another classroom, and out of the rain, to learn about marine debris by matching objects like fishing line, soda cans, glass bottles, newspaper, buoys, and other common items found on shore or in the ocean with how long they take to decompose.

These were just a handful of the activities that the students got to experience during their week on Hurricane Island as part of Governor Mills’ Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative. The Initiative continues to engage 1,000 middle and high school students from across Maine in hands-on, outdoor marine and coastal ecology learning programs up and down the Maine coast.

bucket of sea life

Hurricane Island held several weeklong programs as part of the Initiative, with Maine Department of Education staff getting to visit and experience the Initiative in action with a group of middle school students from Bethel who had little to no exposure to Maine’s marine environment before this program.

For the Initiative, Hurricane Island and the University of Maine 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond’s NorthStar program launched a new partnership to bring thirteen seventh graders to Hurricane Island this summer. The program offered students extended opportunities for quality science learning and leadership development on the shorelines and waterfronts of Hurricane Island.

“Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership is honored to be a partner organization with Governor Mills’ Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative. It is critically important that all Maine kids have access to innovative hands-on science learning experiences along the Maine coast, and this program has empowered many non-profits like ours to expand their impact this summer,” said Bo Hoppin, the Executive Director for the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership. “The launch of this exciting initiative has helped Hurricane Island reach a greater number of rural Maine youth and engage them in experiential learning on our sustainable island campus in new and unique ways.”

The NorthStar program is a hands-on mentoring program that connects young people with caring adults through community engagement, cultural exchange, and adventure challenge and leadership. The experience on Hurricane Island increased students’ knowledge and appreciation of the marine environment through using the scientific process to come up with and answer their own research questions and allowed them to work with Hurricane Island’s professional research team to get hands-on marine research experience with aquaculture projects.

The students explored the intertidal zone using field research methods to collect data, investigated marine debris from microplastics to large scale shoreline cleanups, used sampling methods to collect oceanographic data both onshore and on the water, hauled lobster traps and learned about the biggest economic industry in Maine, and increased confidence and self-awareness while engaging the natural world and building connections with one another.

In addition, Hurricane Island and Gameloft, based in Belfast, designed a program for middle school students that created opportunities for experiential learning and leadership by bringing the Game Loft’s Student Leadership Team to the island to vision how to integrate more coastal engagement into all of the Game Loft’s programs and bringing a cohort of 6th graders from the Troy Howard middle school as part of a new initiative of the I Know ME program. These weeklong programs offered both groups of students extended opportunities for quality science learning and leadership development on the shorelines and waterfronts of Hurricane Island.

Hurricane Island sits in the Penobscot Bay and takes a little less than an hour to get to by boat from Rockland. While there are several classroom and lab structures and a mess hall, the Island itself is a classroom for the students and staff. The Island also has a 3-acre aquaculture farm to the north of the island where they currently grow scallops and kelp for research purposes. Students also learn about sustainability practices through their use on the Island.

More than a dozen organizations were part of the first year of the Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative, which was developed by the Maine Department of Education after Governor Janet Mills announced the pledge to deliver outdoor summer learning programs to Maine students during her State of the State Address.

Students with marine debris

The Ecology School took students on field trips to sand beaches, tidepools, and salt marshes to learn about Maine’s coastal ecosystems. The Herring Gut Coastal Science Center exposed students to sea run fish streams, oyster farms, mudflats, hatcheries, and laboratories, while also touring marine businesses across the Midcoast to let students see firsthand potential careers in Maine’s maritime industries. Sailing Ships Maine continues to offer students the chance to sail aboard a commercial training ship as an active member of the crew.

“The Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative offers hands on, highly engaging programs that allow Maine’s young people to explore and learn from our state’s amazing bounty of natural resources,” said Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin when the Initiative was launched. “Being outside connecting with nature and each other is so important in helping students recover from the pandemic. These outdoor learning experiences will build teamwork and leadership skills, reduce stress and anxiety, and develop new skills in our vast outdoor classroom which will translate to success inside the classroom as well. We thank all of the organizations that stepped up to be a part of this exciting initiative.”

This kind of so-called experiential learning is highly engaging and allows students to problem solve and learn new skills in real world settings, build teamwork and leadership skills, increase self-confidence, and develop an appreciation of nature.

Spending time outdoors has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety and to equip students with skills and knowledge that can help them succeed inside the classroom. Being able to interact with nature while building connections with peers is also beneficial students’ recovery following the disruptions and difficulties caused by the pandemic.

Organizations participating in the Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative include: Herring Gut Coastal Science Center in Port Clyde, Hurricane Island + Bryant Pond in Bryant Pond, Hurricane Island + Game Loft, Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Sailing Ships Maine in Portland, the Ecology School in Saco, Boothbay Sea and Science Center in Boothbay, Casco Bay High School and Rippleffect in Portland, Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Science and Education in Beals, Hurricane Island Foundation in Rockland, Laudholm Trust in Wells, Rippleffect in Portland, Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park, and the University of Maine System Cooperative Extension summer camps at Blueberry Cove and Tanglewood.

The Initiative is funded by nearly $900,000 in federal funding from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Funds. Full program descriptions can be found here.