Environmental Connections: Nature, Team-Building, Academics and FUN!

June 26, 2012

By: Paul Lamoureux, Vice President of Programs

Even before summer officially begins, June ushers in the truly busy season on Thompson Island. Taking advantage of the (mostly) nice weather, events, conferences and Outward Bound Professional programs are all in full swing. Youth Harbor Connections and Peer Leadership programs are already occurring at a rapid rate so that schools from Boston and beyond can take advantage of these programs prior to the end of the school year. However, before Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center truly begins its summer season, the Spring Environmental Connections program must occur.

Beginning with the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School of Dorchester, followed by the Rogers Middle School of Hyde Park, and finally the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School of Roxbury, each of these schools sent more than sixty 6th grade students to spend three days and two nights on Thompson Island. For most of these urban youth, the Environmental Connections program was their first time away from home.

This spring marked the first time that the Environmental Connections program has expanded from two days to three days. Lead teachers Steve Greene from the Rogers, Meghan McGoldrick from the Lilla G. Frederick, and Erin Dukeshire from the Orchard Gardens were all energized by the extended length of the program and the added time for science, math and English Language Arts curriculum, as well as immersion in nature, team-building, peer leadership, and “just plain fun” activities.

Rogers Middle School 6th Graders touching science through a jellyfish in the salt marsh.

The Rogers school had the added excitement and challenge of a spring Nor’easter that hit the island during their stay. Students and staff alike were undaunted as rain jackets were donned and young people headed out in the rain for island exploration and weather and water curriculum. As you might imagine, the weather and water curriculum was particularly relevant.

Earlier in the spring, all three schools were visited twice by Thompson Island Outward Bound instructors and National Park Rangers to prepare students for their 3-day overnight expedition to Thompson Island. One classroom session oriented students to the island and was focused on the underpinnings of mutual respect and collaboration. The next session included interactive activities that prepared students for the weather and water curriculum they would be learning on the island.

Lilla G. Frederick 6th graders fresh off the boat at Thompson Island.

Nothing, however, can truly prepare a young person for the many wonders of Thompson Island. It must be experienced. Whether it is the boat ride to Thompson Island; staying in dorms and eating in the dining hall “like college students“; traversing the island and experiencing the many ecosystems of beach, meadow, forest and marsh; overcoming obstacles on the island challenge courses; or interacting with teachers, park rangers, Thompson island instructors and fellow students, there is something exciting and wondrous for everyone.

Over the course of three days, student activities are now focused on the following themes: Adventure, Academics and Service.

Lilla G. Frederick 6th graders with their team flag.

Day one revolves around adventure and challenge as students are oriented to the island and work both individually and collectively to overcome obstacles put forth by instructors. Students are challenged by adventure games, problem-solving initiatives and ropes course activities such as the “wild woozy” or the “up and over” wall. Each crew of 10 students creates a team name and a group flag. The group also ratifies and signs a “full value contract” which lists all of the behaviors the group wants each other to exhibit during their stay on the island, and lists those behaviors the group does not want to see. Typically “in” are trust, respect, encouragement, and teamwork. “Out” are usually put-downs, exclusionary behavior, disrespect and fighting.

Lilla G. Frederick 6th graders finding their way around Thompson Island.

Day two of Environmental Connections focuses on the academic curriculum where students traverse the island using map and compass to find various locations staffed by National Park Rangers and Thompson Island Curriculum Instructors. At each of these locations, activities range from conducting experiments to guided imagery where students learn about clouds and weather, evaporation, convection, condensation and the entire water cycle.

Orchard Gardens 6th graders learning about salinity on Thompson Island.

Orchard Gardens 6th graders dissecting owl pellets.

Day two also includes a curriculum module where students again traverse the island, this time looking for various water sources to test for salinity. Students use hydrometers and refractometers to test water samples from the ocean, the salt marsh and the “skating” pond to determine the salinity level of the sources. Students create hypotheses on why one source might be saltier than another. Activities later in the day include reflecting and journaling on all of the day’s learning and experiences. Day two culminates in the lab of the school building where students dissect owl pellet and discover that owls are predators by reconstructing the owl’s prey from the skeletal remains found in their pellets. After slipping on gloves, students truly get the feel of being a scientist as they reconstruct a mouse or vole from its skeletal remains.

Orchard Gardens 6th graders learning about, and helping remove, invasive species.

Day 3 on Thompson Island revolves around service. Students appreciate the ability to “give back” to Thompson Island as, by now, they feel ownership for their temporary island home. They also have been instilled with the importance of preserving natural places and the “leave no trace” ethic of Outward Bound and the National Park Service. Students once again traverse the island (notice the traversing theme here) on various service projects. Projects include pulling invasive species such as mustard grass, pepper weed and phragmites (otherwise known as the common reed). Students learn about natural and invasive species and the importance of ecosystem regulation. Some students might embark on a beach clean-up project where students are typically amazed by how much plastic, Styrofoam and other flotsam ends up on Thompson beaches. While students are learning about the importance of recycling and properly disposing of waste, they beam with pride at the size of their fully loaded trash bags. They are now truly stewards of the environment!

Rogers Middle School 6th graders taking the Junior Rangers’ Pledge.

The Thompson Island Environmental Connections experience typically winds down with students writing postcards to all of the donors who made their experience on the island possible. The Environmental Connections program for Boston Public Schools is a philanthropically funded program targeted at underserved schools and neighborhoods. It is clear that all of the students who write post cards are truly thankful for the opportunity of coming to the island. A graduation ceremony then culminates the expedition, where all students are officially “sworn in” as Junior Rangers and receive a badge from the National Park Service Rangers.

As the young people head off to the boat to bring them back home to Dorchester or Hyde Park or Roxbury, it is certainly clear from listening to the students and teachers alike that this Environmental Connections experience on Thompson Island has had a deep impact on all who have participated.

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