Mention Maine to anyone from out of state, and they usually free-associate lighthouses and shellfish. The state’s most famous fishery, lobster, brought $533 million into the state in 2016, all harvested from the cold, rocky waters of the Gulf of Maine.
“Maine coastal communities rely heavily on the Gulf of Maine as an economic driver, for recreation, and just as a way of life,” says the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s LabVenture! Program Manager Meredyth Eufemia Sullivan — all reasons why it’s a critical ecosystem for kids in Maine to learn about.
Fortunately, there’s Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s LabVenture! experience, a hands-on science education program that brings students from across the state to Portland to learn about the Gulf. Since 2005, this innovative science education program has drawn an average of over ten thousand fifth and sixth graders per year, with $2,850,000 in funding from Poland Spring® Brand Natural Spring Water since the program opened its doors.
Kids go to Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s cutting-edge learning center to witness firsthand their many connections to the Gulf of Maine and its fisheries. Sullivan says of the program, “We try to make sure they understand their connection to the Gulf of Maine so they can make informed decisions about how they would like to behave in their community… We like to highlight the path the water in their watershed takes from their homes, their towns, their schoolyards to get to the Gulf of Maine.”
In practice, that means learning about the water cycle, but it also means handling live lobster (sometimes for the first time in their lives), and observing plankton that Gulf of Maine Research Institute staff take from the ocean the morning before each new group of students arrives.
When asked why the Poland Spring® Brand saw LabVenture! as a priority, community relations manager Heather Printup says, “Statistically, we see that this age is when kids start to develop their science and math skills, and if they don’t develop it then, they may be less interested in it moving forward.”
Since students come to Portland for the fishery and biology-focused program from the coast, too, many attendees have done plenty of fishing already, but teacher Marci Train from Long Island School on Casco Bay says even her students whose parents fish for a living have a lot to learn from LabVenture!: “A lot of my students already have their own licenses and [lobster] traps, but they don’t always think about groundfish, for example, or about how fishermen work together with scientists to make better decisions for the fishing industry or the ecosystem.”
Showing youngsters how Maine fisheries are in continuous dialogue with scientists is part of LabVenture!’s approach because Gulf of Maine Research Institute does this work themselves, providing an essential conduit between fishermen and marine biologists when they’re not educating kids.
The program is having an impact – on average, a stunning 68% of all students in Maine attend the program before they reach 7th grade, and according to impact reports, they feel more confident with science after attending the one-day program – 93% said the program helped them like science more and changed their view of what scientists do.
Living near one of the bodies of water most affected by climate change, today’s students in Maine may become the next generation of ocean stewards and also, Gulf of Maine Research Institute hopes, those fishermen’s scientist advisors. Sullivan says, “We know the Gulf is changing… and we’re optimistic that as we train students to help expose them to science and be trained in science, they’re going to be better prepared to answer questions about how the Gulf will change in the future.”
Sponsored by Poland Spring® Brand Natural Spring Water