Guest blog post by Science Educator Rachel Kimpton
On July 17th, a group of 11 teens from across New England converged on our island with the desire to expand their practice as young scientists. These individuals left at the end of the week as a group of invigorated environmental stewards and critical thinkers, looking with fresh eyes to challenge standards, ask the tough questions, and solve problems upon their return to the mainland.
At the beginning of the week, I offered the students a surprise opportunity: we would have the chance to hang out and share our work with the Hawaiian Hokule’a crew during their stop on the island that week as part of their 5-year, worldwide voyage to raise awareness about indigenous knowledge and practices. Hokule’a are particularly special because they navigate using an adapted ancient Polynesian star compass… and without GPS! The students were tasked with designing and conducting their own research experiments about the ecology of our not-so-tropical island to exchange island information with the Hawaiian crew.
We spent the first half of our week becoming better acquainted with the island itself and each other through a combination of field ecology and team-building exercises. To build up our skills as naturalists and scientists, we explored the island’s diverse micro- and macro- flora and fauna using transects, plankton tows, microscope observations, an intertidal scavenger hunt, lobstering with Oakley, and many hikes. Silas, one of our facilities staff, shared his skills as a boat craftsman and emerging seafarer by teaching us how to tie knots, which we used to construct our own rafts to “sail” across the ice pond (although somewhat unsuccessfully), as well as some tricks of the boatbuilding trade. We supported, encouraged, and coached each other as we took turns rock climbing our way to the top of the granite facade. Bailey and Jessie, members of our research staff, incorporated us into two of Hurricane’s ongoing research projects about scallops and aquaculture. We counted and measured a bunch of the cutest and tiniest baby scallops, which were extremely mobile as they snapped and swam their way to the surface! Later in the week, we went out on the boat with Oakley and Bailey to harvest kelp from Hurricane’s first aquaculture project and collect data on the fronds we retrieved. Rachael, the sustainability intern, gave us a tour of the island’s water, energy, and composting systems, which prompted us to consider what impacts humans have on the world around us.
After these initial explorations, we discussed our topics of interest and began to develop research questions that would guide our own marine ecological investigations. We bounced ideas off of each other to form strong questions that we could actually test in the field, which included examining the diversity of marine species in the intertidal zones, the presence of edible macro-algae, the population density of hermit crabs in tide pools, and the relationship between lobstering activity and seal populations. The students worked incredibly hard to make these experiments meaningful with such a short turnaround, with several hours spent in the field collecting data, reading and researching in field guides, analyzing our data, and preparing our presentations. Eliza, my intern, gave us a fun break in the form of a nighttime plankton tow so we could check out the bioluminescence of those organisms.
Thursday morning was the final stretch of finishing presentations and taking a relaxing break to row on the ocean with Silas. Once we got our projects to a place we were happy with, we spent Thursday afternoon listening to stories from Hokule’a about growing as an organization since the 1970s and about their most recent leg across the Atlantic from Cape Town, South Africa to the United States. We learned about ancient Polynesian voyages, their traditional double-hulled canoe, and the different ways they use cues from nature to navigate. A few of our students even had the chance to practice using their star charts! After hearing from Hokule’a, we set up our projects and shared our work with the crew and Hurricane Island staff. Our projects prompted so many wonderful conversations about the diversity in critters, systems, ideas, and cultural practices that exist in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Later in the afternoon, Dana, one of the science education interns, shared her own research experience working with the invasive lionfish in the Bahamas and showed us how to dissect (and fillet!) a fish of our own. All of the island visitors and staff came together that night as a big group to enjoy a delicious food at our South End beach cookout, swap stories, and practice navigating with the stars out on the pier.
We spent most of Friday discussing and engaging the urgent problem of marine debris based on our experiments during the week and our conversations with Hokule’a. I introduced the students to some of the ways that scientists, artists, and those in between are currently approaching the problem in inspiring ways through the development of new technology, streamlining waste collection or recycling, and creative ways that raise awareness. We all worked together to clean up almost half of the island’s coast (!) and turned that collected trash into wearable treasures for an Island Runway fashion show for the staff later in the afternoon. Saturday morning was our time to reflect on the week as we silently walked the perimeter trail and practiced our close observation skills as naturalists before coming together for a final, fun lunch.
During our last group conversation on Saturday, I communicated to these students that I did not choose the educator life, but rather that it chose me. Young people like them are the reason I am invigorated in my work as an educator and feel hopeful about our future on this planet. The magic of Hurricane Island certainly worked on this group and brought out their creativity, thoughtfulness, and desire to actively contribute to the greater scientific community. Eliza and I both feel so fortunate to have been able to work, learn, and grow with this group during their time here.