Hurricane Island Science Educator Alice Anderson gets kids fired up about the natural world

This is real grubby, hands-in-the-dirt kind of science

Posted:  Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - 4:30pm
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Story Location:
Hurricane Island  Maine  04863
United States

HURRICANE ISLAND — Inside a tiny, shingled one-room outbuilding, a ratty skeleton of a raccoon lies splayed on top of a laboratory table, its bones carefully reassembled Next to that lies a tray of marine invertebrates found in the intertidal zone on Hurricane Island. Alice Anderson, 23, found the raccoon bones on a hike around the island and just because she felt like it, she excavated them and put them all together again like a puzzle. When the students visit the lab this summer, this will be the first thing they see.

This is Anderson's second year as science educator for the Hurricane Island Foundation (Center for Science and Leadership), which runs a variety of leadership, science and research courses for adults and students. Hurricane Island is located off Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay.

Anderson works with Maine and New England high school students, who come to the island throughout the summer and fall in school groups or in an open enrollment course, and gives them hands-on experiences of Hurricane Island's ecology, natural history and biodiversity. The program aims to get kids to connect with their immediate surroundings and to fire the spark of exploration and investigation within. For example, armed with the lab's extensive library of books on subjects ranging from foraging to plant, animal, insect and seaweed identification, they might go on a hike and try to catalogue the algae they find in the intertidal zone, as well as sea life — such as periwinkles and dog whelks — that exist at the shoreline. They also study climate change, lobstering practices and issues that affect Penobscot Bay.

In other words, look up, look around, look down, get your fingers in the dirt and hoist your antennae up. Science is in every aspect of the natural world that permeates Hurricane Island. Until several years ago, Outward Bound used it as its home base until they moved their offices to the Midcoast.  And what a spectacular island it is — from its enormous slabs of pink granite leading down to the sea to its steep-walled fresh-water quarry to its quiet spruce forests. Without waxing too poetic, it is a wonderland for the junior naturalist to explore and discover, for the entire island is one big laboratory. [To see more of Hurricane Island's beauty see the recent photo gallery.]

Anderson is from Oregon, but has spent much of her time these last few years in Maine. She graduated from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor with a degree in human ecology, and spent a couple of summers working on Deer Isle.

The Maine Island Science and Leadership Exploration courses are funded primarily by private donations and therefore, are limited to several weeks in the summer.

"The premise of this summer's program is about island ecology and how we can characterize islands," said Alice. "Starting on Hurricane Island, we'll do a survey on biodiversity, everything from geology, botany, ornithology, and marine biology. Then we'll take that information and we'll sail to a nearby island, catalog what they have in comparison and we'll communicate what we find with other islands."

This isn't just about running a group of kids through a course. The scientific data each school group collects will be submitted to Hurricane Island's Biological Field Reseach station.

"We're using this program to work with graduate students and our students' findings will be a part of their original research,"  she said.

Six months on an island, as lovely as it is, can be a really long time. Asked what really gets her excited about doing this every day, Anderson said, "I think it's really fun to have students feel empowered about learning science and to come up with student-driven experiments. It's been a learning experience for me, but it's really cool to have students be in charge of the science they're learning about and start to ask really good questions."

The island's various programs run from May 15 until Oct. 31 each year, but they're working on developing year-round programs with Hurricane Island staff coming to the mainland and continuing to work with teachers and students who've participated in their program.

The Maine Island Science and Leadership Exploration program runs from July 21 – 27 and Aug. 10 – 23. More information can be found about it here.

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Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com.