SACO – To the untrained eye, it looked like a bunch of kids were making sand castles at Ferry Beach on Monday afternoon.

In fact, the seventh-graders from Lincoln Middle School in Portland were demonstrating how tectonic plates, which make up the Earth’s surface, push together to form mountains.

Then they learned how rain gradually wears mountains down, sometimes gouging deep passages where mighty rivers flow.

Jinx Bauer, a naturalist at the Ferry Beach Ecology School, delivered such weighty information with a sense of fun and wonder that brought dull classroom lessons to life.

“It’s more interesting than actual school because we’re doing hands-on activities,” said Rachel Doering, one of the seventh-graders. “You’re seeing it happen. I think you learn more than you do from books, and it’s great to be outdoors instead of stuck in the classroom.”

Lincoln’s seventh grade — 136 students in all — was at the ecology school Monday as part of a two-day, overnight field trip focusing on the ecosystems of the beach, marshes and woods near the mouth of the Saco River. The ecology school operates in meeting, dining and dormitory space leased from the Ferry Beach Association.

Lincoln was able to send its seventh-graders and several teachers on the trip because the ecology school covered most of the $12,000 cost with foundation grants and other program funds.

This year, the school invited two Maine middle schools to attend largely on scholarship in an effort to entice more Maine schools to participate in its environmental education program, said Drew Dumsch, executive director of the ecology school.

Bonny Eagle Middle School in Standish sent 300 seventh- and eighth-graders two weeks ago. It was an experience that would have cost the school district more than $30,000, said Maureen Duggan, associate director of the ecology school.

Since the ecology school started offering classes in the fall of 1999, it has worked with more than 70,000 students and adults from more than 65 schools in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and New York. In most cases, students attend for five days in the spring or fall at a cost of $200 each.

The ecology school now provides programming to about 20 Maine schools, but only 10 of them have experienced the overnight program, which features environmental and community-building lessons throughout the students’ stays.

The Lincoln students, for instance, were expected to take a guided nighttime walk in the woods to learn about forest ecology after dark. Instructors even provide lessons in nutrition, recycling and waste reduction, during meals that feature organic and locally grown foods.

Other Maine communities that have sent students to the ecology school are Poland, Mechanic Falls, Minot, Freeport, Biddeford, Old Orchard Beach, Saco, Dayton and Lebanon.

Dumsch said he has wanted to host Lincoln students for a few years because Lincoln has a well-established environmental science curriculum featuring a geodesic dome and a cafeteria recycling program.

Dumsch contacted Principal Steve Nolan about the possibility last fall, knowing that neither parents nor the school district could afford the $12,000 trip, given increasing budget cuts and the recession.

Dumsch and Nolan worked out a plan to have the ecology school fund most of Lincoln’s cost this year. Students, parents and teachers raised $2,000 for transportation and other basic costs. Dumsch and Nolan have begun working on a partnership to seek outside funding for future years.

“This experience shows students that they are part of a system,” Nolan said as he watched his seventh-graders scramble along the beach. “It’s also helping them understand that what they’re learning in the classroom has relevance in the real world. And, as it turns out, they’re having a lot of fun, too.”

Rob Lindsay, a Lincoln science teacher, was glad to see his students demonstrating concepts that he had shared with them in the classroom. He hopes Lincoln and the ecology school can develop a stronger working relationship so they can link their lessons more closely.

“They students are really re-enacting something here rather than learning about it in a book or on a computer,” Lindsay said. “The beach makes more sense of it somehow.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]