AUGUSTA — As of Thursday, a total of 400 Maine high school students will have experienced, for many, a life-altering and unique annual event at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay.

Every spring for the past 25 years, the Keller-BLOOM (Bigelow Laboratory Orders Of Magnitude) program has brought together 16 juniors to engage in ocean science at the world-renowned laboratory.

This program began in 1989 when two visionary young scientists, Maureen Keller and Clarice Yentsch, and a board member, Jim McLoughlin, decided that Bigelow Laboratory would make a fine place to bring a group of regular students to help them understand the ocean, which is so central to life in Maine.

They imagined a program that would give the students a chance to work side by side with some of the nation’s top scientists, hauling nets, puzzling through microscopes, making sense of the ocean’s many mysteries.

To make it equally available to all, they decided to always select one student from each of Maine’s 16 counties to participate, and to cover all the costs, even food and accommodation. (The program was renamed Keller-BLOOM to honor Maureen Keller, who died in 1999.)

Over the years, the program has learned much from these students. For example:

Despite the ocean being in our backyard, many of Maine’s students have never had the chance to see it.

Signing up for a weeklong oceanography program with a boat-based sampling protocol does not prevent seasickness (many of us feel their pain).

Neither scientists nor students work 100 percent of the time; there needs to be time built in for plenty of social events.

Plenty of social events require plenty of supervision.

Presenting as a team of students ensures everyone knows their stuff.

Assembling 16 high school juniors who have never met, into a single space to work together, can work incredibly well – or not.

Scientists learn as much from students as students learn from scientists.

Students love getting to call the scientists by their first names.

Most students never knew that a world-class oceanography institute was in Maine.

While working with youth takes a lot of energy, scientists often gain more energy from the interaction.

Maine is a rural state; in fact it is the most rural state in the nation, even including Alaska. Our population tends to live long distances from population centers (the definition of ruralness), and this has its consequences. Only 11 percent of rural high school students have access to out-of-school programs, compared to 22 percent of youth in the struggling urban core.

In addition they are less likely to have access to challenging math and science classes and even qualified math and science teachers, according to a report from Change the Equation titled “Lost Opportunity.”

Yet our students need strong backgrounds in science and math to compete in this century for good jobs in engineering and technology, or for understanding everyday issues such as sustainable fisheries or bacterial resistance.

BLOOM is one great way for Maine’s youth to learn science while having a phenomenal experience, and there are several others. Most cost no or little money.

Bigelow, Jackson and Mount Desert Biological Laboratories and most universities offer free open houses. Portland’s Gulf of Maine Research Institute has a Lunch and Learn program. The planetarium at the University of Southern Maine does wonderful shows for youth and adults.

A walk in the woods can be a learning experience, as can a dinner conversation on “What did you see/hear/touch/smell today in nature?”; “What geometric patterns did you notice today?”; “What technology did you find useful/challenging/frustrating today?” and “What solution to a problem did you come up with today?”

Doing science and math with our children is just as important as reading to and with them. As parents, we don’t need to have all of the answers – no one has all of the answers; we just need to show interest.

We truly are surrounded by science – 400 Maine kids have loved the BLOOM experience, and their numbers keep growing.

— Special to the Press Herald