As teachers fill their lesson plans for the first busy weeks of school, some are realizing that the best lessons may be taught not in a classroom, but on a cliff, or in the ruins of a house abandoned on an island a century ago. Recently a group of educators met on Hurricane Island to design curriculum that will not only meet Maine Learning Results and Common Core standards, but they also stepped outside of the classroom to create programming that will engage students in tangible concepts, critical thinking and case studies they will remember, not just regurgitate for a test.

The weeklong program design workshop was part of a new chapter for Hurricane Island, most well-known as a rugged base for Outward Bound programs, now being transformed into a year-round education, science and wilderness medicine center by the nonprofit Hurricane Island Foundation. The plans to offer state-standard-aligned curriculum outings to schools all over Maine began this spring, and programs from this design workshop will continue this innovative series. Student visits to the island are centered on an active experience that is prefaced by a short introduction in their classroom. On island experiences will be based on the curriculum chosen from those designed by the experts and educators at the end of the summer, among them place-based education expert David Sobel alongside teachers from the islands and nearshore communities of Penobscot Bay. The science curriculum for middle and high school students offers many options, most based on the rich maritime environment around Hurricane Island, including studies of the lobster larval population density or the water quality in the mussel and clam beds. The history and social studies curriculum is complex and yet accessible, offering a look at the individuals in the town that thrived on Hurricane in the late 1800s when it was a bustling granite company town.

Central to the curriculums’ success is the students’ active participation in their own environment, compelling them to think like historians and scientists, to choose which questions will be important to study from their experience on the island. It may go without saying, that this is almost the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the “screen time” based Internet activities in which students spend hours immersed each week.

Participant, teacher and collaborator Bill McClellan of Medomak Middle School had this to say after the workshop, “It was great to be back on Hurricane Island creating exciting, relevant curriculum for my middle school students. I have already begun weaving in lobster references into my current classes. I have applied for monies to make some small robots and am looking forward to attempting to make underwater ROV’s with my class… The facilities have been brought back to life and the spirit of the island is coming back in a new form.”

What the Hurricane Island programs offer is a chance for students to see that their work matters in the wider world, where the science they conduct will have implications for action by scientists and residents alike, and that their answers to the historical question of why the town of Hurricane Island died can teach them lessons about the sustainability of their own communities.

More information can be found online at hurricaneisland.net or by contacting John Dietter at jdietter@hurricaneisland.net or by calling 831-8813.