PORTLAND – Heart-wrenching images of sludge-soaked pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico have all but vanished from daily news coverage since the leaking BP oil well was capped in July.

For juniors at Casco Bay High School, the oil spill will remain front and center as they study its impact on the environment and the people of the Gulf Coast in a yearlong interdisciplinary learning expedition, “In the Black.”

On Friday, half of the junior class visited Portland’s sewage treatment plant on the East End, and the other half visited the Portland Water District’s treatment plant in Standish. The students’ goal was to learn about the chemistry and other science concepts involved in preserving a precious natural resource in the face of growing environmental challenges.

“The leak in the Gulf has been stopped, but the issues that it raised live on,” said Principal Derek Pierce. “The spill is an obvious example of the crisis we all face because of our dependence on fossil fuels. We’re looking at the spill and all the implications of it for us here in Maine and around the world.”

Started five years ago, Casco Bay High is a 264-student public school that follows an expeditionary learning model promoted by Outward Bound. Teachers work together to develop interdisciplinary projects that include real-world learning experiences.

This year’s “junior journey” will encompass science, social studies, math and language arts lessons related to the Gulf spill. Students also will create policy briefings and present them to energy and environmental experts.

The project will culminate with a trip to Biloxi, Miss., where students will interview residents and help with community rebuilding efforts. They must raise $30,000 to pay for the trip, starting with at fundraiser Tuesday night at Flatbread Co. on Commercial Street.

On Friday, the students learned how a sewage treatment plant protects local water quality and how a water treatment plant depends on it. Back in the classroom, they will conduct lab experiments demonstrating the science behind cleanup strategies used in the Gulf, including chemical dispersants and absorbent booms.

“No matter where you live, clean water is important to your life,” said Brooke Teller, chemistry teacher. “A better knowledge of science can really inform the decisions we make in forming public policy.”

Annie Laughton is one of the students coordinating the junior journey. She rows past the sewage treatment plant daily during crew season, but she never fully understood its role in keeping pollution out of Casco Bay.

“This project makes me think about everything I do in my everyday life and how dependent we are on petroleum,” Laughton said. “Even the facial wipes I use have petroleum in them. I’m really excited to go to Mississippi because we get to see how people lived through the spill and how they were affected by it.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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