WINTER HARBOR — Students from Sumner Memorial High School’s Pathways program are taking their science lessons from trees and seaweed while helping researchers from Schoodic Institute.
With help from the Davis Family Foundation and Maine Timberlands Charitable Trust grants, a research and education partnership between Schoodic and Pathways has students working in the field with forest ecologist Nick Fisichelli and intertidal specialist Hannah Webber.
For the rest of the school year, the students will meet weekly with their researcher and head into the field to collect data or into the classroom to analyze results. For students working with Fisichelli that means heading for the trees.
“Trees are long lived and thus forests can seem to be static, unchanging places,” says Fisichelli. “However, forests do change and looking in the right places at the right times can yield insights into forest dynamics. The work the Pathways students are doing with me will give us clues to how local forests may look in the future.”
Students working with Fisichelli identify tree species and measure the size, abundance, growth, and survival of trees within Frenchman Bay Conservancy’s Baker Hill Preserve near the High School. Sumner Memorial High School teacher Walter Crabtree explained that Pathways is an alternative education program that provides each student with a unique learning plan.
“These kids require hands-on learning,” Crabtree said, “and coming to [Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park] on Thursdays does that.” Crabtree added, “While the students in the marine science class will likely follow a marine trade, my students [working with Nick Fisichelli] probably won’t pursue a forestry path, but are able to fulfill important science requirements outside of a traditional classroom.”
For the rest of the Pathways students involved, research means heading into the intertidal zone.
“We’re looking at microscopic animals that live on rockweed, and how the community of those animals changes through the year, and year to year,” says Webber. “The intertidal, the rockweed zone in particular, is a critical habitat for a number of commercially important animals. By studying changes in prey species for those larger animals we’re filling in the rockweed food web picture.”
“It’s excellent working with the students because they are not only good workers but they are also very bright, very curious, and first-rate problem solvers,” Webber said. “And it’s exciting to work with them in research in what’s really their front yard.”
“I have 14 students [working with Hannah Webber],” said Sumner Industrial Arts teacher Steve Belyea, “and 10 of them are lobster fishing.
“One of the great things about coming to Schoodic Institute is to find out what science is and how to relate it to what they do…our students need something they can connect to.”
As both forest and intertidal groups of students collect data for researchers to analyze, they also are collecting data that they will analyze, think about, and present as their own in the spring. The data being collected can help answer a lot of research questions.
The Pathways-Schoodic project will culminate in the spring in student research presentations.
“Science is not only observing and then collecting a lot of data, it’s also interpreting and sharing the story of the data and what the data tell us. The students are already collecting and analyzing their data, they will be telling all of us what their data mean in May,” says Webber.
The collaboration with Sumner’s Pathways program is part of a larger program at Schoodic Institute that studies how work with scientists on real research questions can help students become more interested in science while developing useful science skills.
Bill Zoellick, Schoodic Institute’s Education Research Director leads the Pathways collaboration as well as the larger research effort.
He says, “We meet many students who have gotten the idea that science is not for them. But when these students get out in the field to help a scientist collect data or samples, they discover that it is creative, interesting work and, more important, it is work that they can do. We would like to get more students thinking, ‘Hey, I could see myself doing this, and I could be doing it here where I live.’ That’s the goal.
“Part of our job at Schoodic Institute is to figure out how to make this kind of learning a bigger part of how science is taught for all students, but especially for those students who are not connecting with science in traditional classroom settings.”