Marine Studies Pathway for students to launch on Deer Isle

First published in the MLA Newsletter, December, 2012.

Students at Deer Isle-Stonington High School (DISHS) soon will have the opportunity to participate in a marine-related program which school officials and parents hope will enhance student learning. Principal Todd West said that the school plans to launch a Marine Studies Pathway next fall that will provide practical, hands-on learning opportunities for students interested in marine-related careers. Many topics in traditional courses such as English, biology, and algebra will also be tailored to include marine-related themes for students in the Marine Studies Pathway.

While graduation rates at DISHS increased from 57 to 83 percent during the last few years, teachers had noticed that students weren’t really as engaged in the learning process as they’d like them to be. So they began looking at ways to improve the education process and to make classes more relevant.

A team gathered to create curricula for the Marine Studies Pathway during a retreat last year on Hurricane Island. From left to right: Alice Anderson, Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership researcher (HICSL), Abby Barrows, HICSL researcher; Seth Laplant, DISHS Life Sciences teacher; Carla Guenther, Penobscot East Resource Center fi sheries science associate; Leslie Billings, DISHS Math & Special Ed Teacher; Tom Duym, DISHS Marine Trades teacher; John Dietter, Executive Director HICSL. Photo courtesy of Todd West.

“A parent who was involved with the district’s Strategic Planning Team and a board member of Penobscot East Resource Center (PERC) approached us last year about developing marine-related curriculum at DISHS,” explained West. Several high school staff members met with representatives from PERC, the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, and other individuals interested in developing the Marine Studies Pathway at DISHS.

Carla Guenther at PERC has been collaborating with school officials and community members to develop curriculum for the program. The group held a two-day retreat on Hurricane Island recently to develop a pilot project which will be launched at DISHS this spring.

“The Marine Pathways curriculum may be related to marine biology, navigation, marine engineering, public policy, or technical writing,” Guenther explained. Students will be required to meet the same standards as students in traditional high school programs, however, the Marine Studies Pathway also will prepare them for a variety of marine-related careers or marine-related college degrees. The same curriculum and hands-on activities may be used to train both aspiring fishermen (or women) and students desiring to earn a PhD in marine ecology.

“They’ll work alongside of each other,” said Guenther. “The students may travel to Augusta and listen to a Marine Resources session or leave class and go catch a tide if that’s what they’re studying. We want to keep the kids engaged as much as possible.”

DISHS teacher Tom Duym noted that it’s difficult for some students to recognize the importance of their high school education because many students involved in the fishing industry are already financially self-sufficient. “Many of them are out on the water by the age of eight and are successful lobstermen by the time they reach high school. They already own a boat and a truck and traps,” said Duym. “They make decent salaries.”

The main focus of the Marine Studies Pathway isn’t teaching students how to fish or how to set a trap. Those skills come from family members, since many families in the area have been involved in the fishing industry for several generations. What the Marine Studies Pathway can do for students, Duym explained, is equip them with other critical skills such as how to engage in a public debate, how to become an effective public speaker, and other training which will able them to succeed in today’s world and keep the Deer Isle fishing industry alive for the future.

“If lobstermen can speak the language of the legislature and scientists, we can empower them to be at the table to talk about issues that will affect their future,” West said. “It’s not about how to land a lobster and not about how to fish. It’s about helping them to gain the skills that in the 21st century will enable them to have greater impact than they have in the past.”

In addition to the Marine Studies Pathway, DISHS plans to offer an Eastern Maine Skippers Program, an honors track program open to 10th to 12th grade students who hold a student or professional license in a commercial fishery. West said that they hope to create a cohort of aspiring fishermen across eastern Maine who can learn from each other. High school students from Deer Isle to Eastport would continue studying in their own school but also participate in cooperative learning through video conferencing and other digital technology. West envisioned an instructor developing a course about navigation or building nets which could then be shared with other schools. Shead High School in Eastport, George Stevens Academy, Sumner High School, and a number of other schools have expressed interest in participating in the Eastern Maine Skippers Program.

DISHS received a start-up grant from the Island Education Foundation which covered some of the initial costs to develop the marine-related programs. Additional funds are needed to make the two programs a reality. West said that a number of people have also volunteered their time and skills to help get the programs off the ground. “Because the fishing industry is dominated by males, the Marine Studies Pathway may appeal more to males,” West said. So the school may offer a healthcare pathway in the future. “Many of our female students have expressed an interest in becoming doctors or nurses or pursuing other health-related careers,” he explained.