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By Sean Malvey
| October 2, 2018
“I basically told her that one day I’m going to take her job, and I stand by that today.” Nineteen year old J’Saun Bastien grins as he recounts the conversation he had with Olga Feingold, then a program director at Thompson Island Outward Bound. J’Saun’s confidence came about from studying over many years on that very island.
Located just a stone’s throw – well actually one mile – from Dorchester, this harbor island features an unusually diverse ecosystem; it’s a 204-acre outdoor classroom owned and managed by the non-profit Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center. While the island has served a range of Boston youth since 1833, for the past 30 years the focus has been providing free education and leadership programs for students in the Boston Public Schools (BPS).
Middle schoolers are the priority now, because that is a stage when young people are forming ideas about careers and developing the resilience and tenacity to make it into—and through—college.
Science is the centerpiece
Like many young students who fall in love with the place over multiple island lessons throughout middle school, J’Saun came back in high school to participate in the Green Ambassadors (GA) program. Co-sponsored by the National Park Service, GA is a popular three-year career development program that connects high school students with paid science-based summer jobs, and with mentors, on the island.
“I have a good relationship with the staff, and we’d always joke around, but I kept telling them for real, this place could be so much more – there wasn’t enough recycling, they weren’t composting yet. I became obsessed with environmental sustainability because of Thompson Island, and here I was telling them they need to get more serious about harnessing geothermal energy and running 100% on natural resources.”
The comments were well received by the Outward Bound staff, who credit him with inspiring their current recycling. The staff remembers the shy J’Saun who first showed up at age 13. He was failing some courses, and says he struggled with health problems and low confidence. Fast forward to today, and J’Saun, more appropriately addressed as Mr. Bastien, is a sophomore Environmental Studies major, as well as a track and field star, at Boston College.
While Bastien became a self-described “environmental geek” from his time on the island – engaged through the organization’s hands-on approach to Science – not all students that study on the island go on to pursue careers in science, and that’s ok, because they all learn to “think like a scientist.”
Training through, not for
What Thompson Island Outward Bound does best, according to the young people interviewed, is train students how to think critically and how to operate as a team. No matter their career or life aspirations, they quickly realize how powerful it is to ask questions, make observations, form and test hypotheses. They learn that Science is a team sport. To learn Science, you have to practice Science. And to practice Science you need to communicate, collaborate, solve problems, resolve conflict, and take intellectual risks together.
Perhaps most importantly, on the island students learn how to become engaged citizens in the world.
BPS teachers say they notice the difference in their students while on island, and then back in the classroom, as both academic and social-emotional skills grow.
“De-briefing is a big part of their (Outward Bound) culture. After a trip to the island, I hear my fourth graders in the halls saying things like ‘that made me feel disrespected’ or ‘my observation is that…’ Those little moments make me smile because I can see the impact Thompson Island has on them,” says Ailbhe Kerrigan, fourth grade teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. school in Dorchester.
While the classroom lessons are important, it’s the island itself that students can’t stop talking about, since many of them had never before been on a ferry or spent time near the ocean. Staff on the island help students develop communication skills by pairing their lessons with an array of outdoor activities: backpacking, climbing, kayaking, forest restoration, and student-led Science exercises. You read that correctly: the students often lead their own scientific and team-building experiments, working together through exercises monitored by trained staff.
“One of the first challenges they gave my team was to cross a river with only a handful of planks. It was crazy. They gave my crew different rules—some of us had to be blindfolded, others couldn’t talk,” recalls Marvelous Abraham, a former island student who is currently a sophomore majoring in Marketing at St. John’s University.
“The first 45 minutes we just sat there arguing, but little by little we made it across. We delegated tasks, we asked each other questions, we listened. I discovered that day my communication skills have power, and that’s partly why I became so interested in Marketing”.
BPS teacher Kerrigan, who has worked in partnership with Thompson Island for five years, added, “Whether it’s with a scientific lesson, or there’s an incident between students, the staff on the island give my kids the space to deconstruct and verbalize their problems. That is a learned skill that, unfortunately, we as BPS teachers don’t have enough time to devote to in our day”.
Learning not for a test, but for life
Backed by a proven international education provider in Outward Bound, as well as a network of philanthropists in Boston, Thompson Island has been able to employ targeted learning activities that make a real difference for underserved Boston students.
Through nine years of external research, the organization has documented that students who enter their programs with low interest in Science not only increase their Science performance, but also their social-emotional skills. Harvard Medical School and Wellesley College identified a 37% increase in critical thinking and a 32% increase in perseverance. Earlier studies showed a significant increase in the academic skills of Math and English, as students conducted experiments and calculations, kept journals and wrote about specimens they observed.
For some of the BPS teachers who partner with the island, the biggest plus is taking the emphasis off tests and onto hands-on learning, such as touching crabs in the salt marsh and building models of how climate change will affect the island (and thus the whole city and country).
“It’s a difficult balancing act. We have to choose either to cover a great Science topic for a week—one that we know will stick with the kids—or teach for the exam,” says Margaret Loughnane, sixth grade math and science teacher at Young Achievers Pilot School, the first school to invite an embedded Outward Bound staff member to work in the building year-round.
“Some parents even choose our school because of our reputation delivering experiential learning programs, like we have in partnership with Thompson Island,” continues Loughnane.
Abraham echoed the value of hands-on learning: “In a traditional school environment it’s always yes or no; you do your work only for the grade. I later realized that I struggled in those classes because they lacked that emotional factor. On the island, they let me think critically. They let me be me.”
The island is now inspiring its graduates to give back to others, which in turn creates a talented and diverse pool of Outward Bound instructors. Abraham is one of three college students who grew up going to the island in middle and high school, and this year came back to teach there, mentoring younger kids in the island’s free five-week summer program.
Hypothesize. Test. Learn. Repeat.
The island may soon make this kind of difference for more students and for the school system as a whole. The board recently voted to scale up over the coming five years in order to serve 15% of all Boston public middle school students, enough to hopefully model the importance of experiential learning for the district as a whole. Over their middle school years, 2600 students from a dozen schools will spend a minimum of 12 days on the island, plus learn from an Outward Bound instructor in their school.
While thrilled about the expansion to serve more kids, Bastien plans to keep up his high expectations of the island, egging on the staff with his newfound confidence: “I’m focused on the environmental side of things. I want to see how they get their maintenance team, their planning team, all those moving parts on the same page, never losing a focus on sustainability. We need to experiment with ways to protect this landscape, these salt marshes, this forest for generations to come.”
Now that’s thinking like a scientist.
For more information about Thompson Island Outward Bound, visit www.ThompsonIsland.org
Sponsored by Thompson Island
The next generation of giving
Through Boston’s education island, adults in their 20s and 30s find a unique way to connect to philanthropy—and each other.
The ultimate outdoor classroom
How an island in the middle of Boston Harbor is giving kids the tools to discover the wonders of nature, realize their best selves, and prepare for the future.