“Okay, are we ready?”James Kary, one of the three Maine Coast Semester faculty who teach “Natural History of the Maine Coast” asks the students in rain gear standing around him. They’re standing on the bridge outside the Allen Center, looking over a stack of students’ yellow field journals; a stack of field guides; and a pile of Biltmore sticks. They’re headed into the woods, where they’ll use the Biltmore sticks to determine tree dimensions and the field guides to identify species. They’ll record their findings and other observations in field journals they’ll fill with their notes and drawings over the course of the semester.
“The most important learning I do in science class is on field trips,” says Emmett Nunes (from Sudbury, Mass., and Concord Academy). James explains that “learning in the field is different and powerful. It brings to life the concepts we study in the classroom.” He notes that sometimes the research his science students do influences real-world projects, such as deciding which trees to remove from the woods on the south side of Chewonki’s Center for Environmental Education to allow maximum sun to reach the building’s newly installed solar panels.
Once a week, no matter the weather, these intrepid students and teachers explore coastal ecology up close and personal. On rocks, sand, and seaweed, and in forests, bogs, tide pools, ponds, and salt marshes, students learn to identify species by sight, sound, and touch. They also come to understand the dazzling interconnectedness of every part of this ecosystem. And they begin to acquire the skills of field naturalists, such as maintaining a field journal, drawing site maps, and creating a species account. They collect and interpret data to bring their knowledge to bear on actual problems.
Where do science field trippers go? There’s a treasure trove of beautiful natural sites to explore within reach of Chewonki and weekly science field trips give students the chance to know these places intimately. Sometimes they head to Popham Beach to study sand dune ecology. Other days they visit Hermit Island or Pemaquid Point to investigate the ecology of the rocky shore. Or they might walk out to Spartina Point, right on Chewonki Neck, to study salt marsh ecology.
“Wherever we go, it’s always an adventure,” says James. “You are face to face with the natural world. It’s wonderful.”