PHIPPSBURG — Nick Kaashoek paused near a Rosa rugosa and considered the woody balls affixed to the plant. Within minutes, he waved science teacher James Kary over to ask about them.

Kary explained how the plant made the woody ball – called a stem gall – around a wasp larvae. Then he showed how well the larvae survived the winter in its woody nest – by digging it out and eating it.

“Tastes slightly sweet, and a little woody,” Kary said.

Utterly impressed, Kaashoek, a Chewonki Semester School student from Lexington, Massachusetts, started digging out maggots and eating them, too. Then he waved classmate Madeline Vinh over.

Vinh declined to taste a maggot. But as for the hands-on science lesson, she said, “I think I will remember it now.”

Chewonki, the Wiscasset-based environmental-education foundation, is celebrating its centennial this year. Its educators are looking at how to offer more curriculum at public schools – and the next step for Chewonki may be ground-breaking.

In the coming months, the nonprofit hopes to secure as much as $500,000 in grants to begin a year-long pilot project to teach hands-on, outdoor science classes in as many as five public school districts. More funding would be sought in the years ahead to expand the pilot program across the state.

“My hope is that in 20 years, Maine will be known as the education state,” said Willard Morgan, Chewonki’s president. “Then everyone will know if you go to high school in Maine you have this experiential, real-world learning that is tightly connected to the forests and waters of Maine. What if that natural environment was connected to school?”

Four years ago, Chewonki started working more closely with schools after its funding dried up. From 2011 to 2014, Chewonki secured grants totaling $1 million that have funded instruction at schools in Wiscasset and Bath, such as a week-long canoe class.

If Chewonki secures more funding, more public high schools would be involved in developing year-long courses based around outdoor lessons. The pilot project would be a collaboration of those schools, Chewonki, and other outdoor learning centers, nonprofits and land trusts.

“Now we are really transitioning to raise money to support programs that will have a larger impact,” Morgan said.

Chewonki’s pilot project would likely be the first public high school program of its kind in the country, according to Cindy Workosky of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Virginia.

Morgan said success of the program would be measured through increased attendance, graduation rates and community service, as well as improved health and fitness among students.

“I put test scores down lower. I don’t think that’s the first measure,” he said. “I know schools are held to lots of test standards. I believe if you create an inspired environment for teaching and learning, it happens in a really powerful way, and test scores do improve.”

The Semester School is Chewonki’s best example of hands-on, outdoor learning. High school students can apply for admission into Chewonki’s program for one semester during their junior year. Semester School students go on four-hour field trips at least once a week for 26 weeks. Chewonki science teachers Kary and Pete Sniffen also take students on wilderness trips to bond the group into a community.

Twice a week, the two teachers strive through lessons outside to change expectations and build observation skills. They ask students to explore and then explain real-life ecosystems. Sometimes the students resist the hands-on learning.

“We don’t simply give them answers. They resent the heck out of us,” Sniffen said.

The two teachers force the students’ inquiries to drive every lesson. The course syllabus is built on the places they go and questions they ask there.

“As someone who worked in the public schools for nearly a decade, this for me is the dream, to be able to blow out the walls of a classroom,” Kary said. “My philosophy is to develop lifelong learners. I hope this experience means their learning later on will not be confined to a classroom.”

Along Maine’s beaches and rivers and in its woodlands, Chewonki students wander, explore and question how and why the natural world here came to exist. Eventually they all find their way, Kary said.

At a picnic area overlooking Popham Beach, 20 students came together Tuesday after an hour of mapping. Every map looked different.

Evan Foster of Boxborough, Massachusetts, said his latest site map looked vastly different from his previous one. His instincts and interests led him to draw plants and trees in a different way.

That’s just the way the class works, Foster explained.

While some students indicated coniferous and deciduous trees on their maps, others were more specific, labeling pitch-pine, red maple and driftwood.

“It kind of depends on the person how you map it. You get better each time you do it,” Foster said.

Sniffin said this is the power in experiential learning: Being in a place, observing what’s there, and recording it in a personal way that students remember. He said it can not be achieved in a lecture-style class.

“Observation skills can be applied to everything – to relationships to your work. If you don’t notice things around you, then you go blindly through life,” Sniffin said.


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