How one district is transforming learning by connecting kids to the ocean—and Bigfoot

On a recent spring day, New Bedford's fourth- and fifth-graders were doing a "beach profile" and identifying the different plants and animals living there.

Even though New Bedford, Massachusetts, is a seaside city, some of its students have never been to the ocean, let alone snorkeled or ridden on a boat. Connecting students of all ages to the water and wider environment is one of the key missions of Sea Lab, New Bedford School District’s hands-on marine and aquatic center.

“Sea Lab has never stopped in its mission to put students into roles as scientists,” says Kate O’Donoghue, the district’s curriculum, data and assessment manager for science. “It puts students right in the middle of local flora and fauna and lets them see how science works when they can get into it with their hands.”

On a recent spring day, fourth- and fifth-graders were doing a “beach profile” and identifying the different plants and animals living there. They also dissected quahogs and compared the mollusk to a human’s biological characteristics, says Simone Bourgeois, the teacher facilitator of Sea Lab.

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Another key to the mission at Sea Lab, which opened in 1968, is for students to work across disciplines. In other recent projects, for example, students have grown lettuce in a hydroponic aquarium and composed music based on the sinking of military ships.

Another class transformed their classroom into a pirate ship to study “the good and the bad” of piracy. While not promoting piracy, students did learn about the extensive mapmaking and navigation skills of these notorious seafarers, who they worked for and how and where they buried treasure, Bourgeois pointed out.

Because some of Sea Lab’s activities occur on a boat or under the water, the program also teaches students to swim. And while the Sea Lab follows state standards, Bourgeois says teachers also stretch the curriculum into some non-traditional and unique subjects, such as assessing whether Bigfoot or UFOs are real. That study of the supernatural has included learning debating skills, she added.

“There’s a little bit of whimsy science thrown in,” Bourgeois explains. “We do everything from meteorology to zoology to any content science a student might approach either in high school or college.”

While the district, which serves many immigrant families, has intensified its focus on English and math, O’Donoghue, Bourgeois and other educators have been working to expand the time teachers spend on hands-on and inquiry-based science, using new curricula such as Discovery Education’s Mystery Science.

Climate and the human impact on climate change are key elements at every level of Sea Lab’s curriculum and learning activities. Bourgeois was recently told by a parent that their student now only lets them buy biodegradable paper products. “We have prepared children to dictate to their parents what we need to do to protect what we have,” she says. “We have a bevy of young women and men going forward as environmentalists.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is the managing editor of District Administration and a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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