Mist rises from the river as sunrise seeps into Evans Notch, the air fractionally warmer than the snowmelt coursing by. Four anglers stand in waders, not much taller than the glacial boulders that dot the Wild River, enjoying a rare wilderness experience.
Laurin Parker ’94, their teacher who is also a Registered Maine Guide, observes them from the bank. He eases his way toward one of them, out of their back cast, to check in. He mimes an action with his wrist and points at the drift of the student’s line, his explanations inaudible over the moving water.
Teens are known for sleeping in, but this crew rose willingly in the dark, donned their layers, grabbed their gear and met at the belltower all before sunup. They will fish, collect water samples, identify a few aquatic insects, and be back on campus just as their roommates shuffle toward Ordway for breakfast.
The class, Ecology of the Androscoggin, is a pilot program that pairs a trimester science elective with an afternoon co-curricular. Combining the sport of fly-fishing with a science class not only gives the students an extended period of time to do fieldwork, but it also gives them an unparalleled opportunity to dive into the ecosystem. They learn about entomology and food webs, about hydrodynamics of water columns and the physics of flexible levers, all while learning how to cast and present.
“Water quality monitoring is what drives the whole process. The bugs, the fish, they are both indicators.”
It’s an ecology course, Parker explains. It’s about understanding a watershed, how species fit inside the food cycle. Stoneflies, mayflies, and caddisflies are all indicators of the health of a stream. Flyfishing is secondary to their understanding of the ecosystem.
“If that stream is supporting heavy insect growth, then we know we have a high level of water quality. Water quality monitoring is what drives the whole process,” says Parker. “The bugs, the fish, they are both indicators. Trout require the highest-quality water to survive, and warmer water species can actually tolerate lower oxygen levels.”
Time is that rarest of commodities in boarding school, but the fluidity of this course opens up new opportunities to explore Gould’s unique location. Back in the McLaughlin Science Center, students at one lab table analyze water samples they took at the river. At another, a student is learning to tie a wooly bugger, a popular fly designed to imitate a Megaloptera or dobsonfly.
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A Gem of a Town
The novel partnership doesn’t just happen at the river.
Tenth-grade chemistry classes make the most of Bethel’s newest cultural attraction, the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum. The Mahoosuc region is renowned for gems (tourmaline was first discovered here), and the museum houses one of the world’s foremost collections of extraterrestrial rocks as well—meteorites from Mars, the Moon and the asteroid belt—that can teach us about the origins of our solar system. The museum has also brought university-level research capability only a block from campus.
“They sort of have everything down there,” says Science Department head Peter Southam. In fact, there is an electron microprobe, a scanning electron microscope, an X-ray diffractometer, a direct coupled plasma spectrometer, polarized light microscopes, and other research instruments as well.
Al Falster is part of the research group that relocated its entire research facility from the University of New Orleans. This fall, he helped students study the chemistry of geology. They pulled sediment from four different local streams (Sunday River, Pleasant River, Wild River, and Peabody River), analyzed it, and pulled out garnets and used an electron microscope to see their chemical composition.
“It’s still chemistry,” says Southam, “but it’s chemistry that’s right here and unique to this area. And this area is pretty unique to the country.”
“We decided to look at it as geochemistry,” explains Todd Siekman, who leads the chemistry course. “The focus of the fall term has always been atoms—what makes up the atom, different types of bonding, different types of matter, homogeneous, heterogeneous, elemental compounds, all of those basic ideas. Now we’re doing that from the lens of geology. They see the bond angles, and it helps them understand how the bonding happens. They learn more geology than you would in a standard chemistry class.”
In the winter, those same students will explore the chemistry of snowmaking.
“We focus on gases, liquid, solids, changes of states, and the bonding that happens,” says Siekman. As part of that, students fabricate their own snowmaking guns and test different nozzles at different temperatures and at different pressures.”
“It’s real world. They say, ‘Oh, that’s what my skis are doing. That’s how it works.’ That’s why we do this.”
Then they tour Sunday River’s Snowflake Factory, just six miles from campus, to help understand how the process works on a large scale. Considered the “most dependable snow in New England,” the resort claims “the most powerful and technically advanced snowmaking system on the planet” complete with 2,000 snowguns, 80 miles of on-mountain pipe, and 2,200 hydrant stations.
“We have the largest snowmaking system in the world in our backyard,” adds Southam. “They learn the same stuff they would have learned in chemistry anyway—gas laws, a little bit of thermodynamics, phases of matter, crystal structure—all of those things. And they study it through the lens of snowmaking.”
Ninth graders in Conceptual Physics get in on the ski-related action testing blocks of ski wax in different conditions, a project the department has done for several years now. Southam calls them “wax torpedoes.”
Every year students test torpedoes made of high-density polyethylene, coated with paraffin, soy wax, and beeswax, and record data over time. At the end of the term, they race the torpedoes down a course outside McLaughlin Science Center. They need to have collected enough data so they know what to wax with on any given day.
“They study friction, acceleration due to gravity—all the things they’d study in physics anyway,” says Southam. “But now, they get to apply that knowledge. It’s real world. They say, ‘Oh, that’s what my skis are doing. That’s how it works.’ That’s why we do this.”
Gulf of Maine
Siekman also teaches Marine Biology, which might seem an odd fit for Bethel, Maine, but the seacoast is only 90 minutes away and the class spends four days each fall on the island of Islesboro in Penobscot Bay.
First, they focus on the physical characteristics of the ocean, of the Gulf of Maine, and then learn why it’s such a plankton-rich area, looking at bloom times and measuring temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, and salinity. They go out on a local schooner called the Bonnie Lynn to do water sampling and take plankton tows from multiple sites, identifying as many as 50 different types.
“We’ll look at those to see if the fall blooms have come, what the predominant animals are, how that relates to what we know about the Gulf of Maine in general. It’s the culmination of what they learn in the first month. Then we spend time looking at the intertidal zone.”
Students run transects along the rocky shoreline in half-meter squares, identifying the barnacles and other organisms that they find, and estimating the percent coverage of the various algae. They compile all of their data and use that to identify where organisms live and try to understand why.
“That’s really what the second month is about,” says Siekman, “identifying how animals live and why they live where they do. We focus on the coast as an example, and we expand it from there.”
For the last two weeks, they research some aspect of human interaction on the Gulf, whether it’s climate change, fishing, ocean farming, or tourism, and how that affects the Gulf in both positive and negative ways.
Econ Meets Enviro
Meghan Young’s Environmental Science class looks at similar issues.
“Much of the fall is a deep dive into where we live, what exists here, and what agencies are responsible for managing what our landscape looks like,” says Young, “and also the economic flow that’s based on the resources in place.”
Each week the group takes a field trip with a local expert. They look at the economics of western Maine, says Young, and what brings in revenue for the region. “We look at how that impacts the greater world,” she says, “how that impacts us here, and how people are doing things, sustainably and unsustainably.”
This winter, she’s planning a multi-day trip to the Avalanche Center at Mount Washington to do a snow science study. And then the spring will be about rebirth, studying cycles of matter, cycles of energy, and food webs as things reemerge.
Down on the Farm
Young also oversees the farm this year as an afternoon extracurricular. In addition to the two-story, student-built barn, there is a new 10-by 12-foot chicken coop, a small hoop house in progress, fenced compost, and a revitalized garden. Her goal is to provide the dining hall with eggs and garlic, and eventually more.
“The kids love interacting with the bigger animals,” says Young, who would like to bring back pigs and cows, but for now the sheep and chickens are still a draw. But it’s real life, too.
“Farming, working with the earth and the animals, helps develop a real sense of compassion in them, too. There’s a sense of responsibility.”
“The farm is such a phenomenal resource, such a perfect tie-in for science,” says Young. “We’re not buying this from a Carolina Science kit. Farming, working with the earth and the animals, helps develop a real sense of compassion in them. There’s a sense of responsibility, too.”
And the Research Shows…
Southam agrees. Especially for his research science class.
“Some of the best biology research that I’d ever seen have come out of the farm,” he says. “There was a maze project where they put piglets or chickens through this maze, which was pretty hysterical because the two girls who did that project, it turns out, couldn’t actually pick up a piglet. It scared them too much.
“There have been quite a few projects that are interesting,” he adds, “because the kids can actually put their hands on live animals, and that’s pretty rare, for good reason. With farm animals, you have a little bit more leeway. We have someone overseeing them who can say, ‘no, you can’t do that’ or ‘yeah, it’s fine.’ That’s the fun science, where the student actually has to think about how they are going to do something. ‘Am I measuring what I think I’m measuring? How is my understanding of these animals and their behavior vastly different from what I thought at the beginning? And how did I have to adjust my approach?’”
Southam enjoys teaching the research course in part because the topics they choose vary so much, but he finds all of his classes interesting “because the kids are different every year. They vary, and every once in awhile you get a kid who comes up with an answer to a question that you’ve been doing for a while and you’re like, ‘Huh, that’s different. Isn’t that clever?’ Teenagers never cease to amaze me.”
But Wait, There’s More
Dark sky is another local resource the department would like to take greater advantage of. Nancy Eaton’s Astronomy class also taps into the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum and their collection of meteorites, but she’d love to get a permanent mount for the telescope down on the lower fields, further from campus lighting.
“We do have a huge advantage at night here, especially on property that Gould owns,” says Southam. “It’s really dark. Again, that’s another thing we can do that you can’t do in Boston or New York or L.A.”
The AUV club, working with a Trident and a decommissioned Navy REMUS 100, is helping the Portland Water District look at tributaries to Sebago Lake. On campus, students have studied tree growth on multiple plots over on Pine Hill for more than five years now.
Gould’s location provides endless possibilities for rich, hands-on experiments. But that flexibility to take students out in the field and do real-world science is made possible by the same academic systems in place that allow on-snow athletes to travel to competitions and training venues around the world.
“A lot of kids remember things more if it’s hands-on right off the bat,” says Siekman. “They also get more interested if they are studying things they can actually relate to. That’s very important. I think it’s better for students to have a stronger understanding of fewer ideas and the ability to think their way through a solution. That is more important in life than remembering specific chemical formulas. It whets their appetite for science, gets them thinking scientifically, relates science to everyday phenomena that they see, and helps them to be more interested in learning.”
“Laurin’s ecology students are going out and collecting data and providing it to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to help them figure out what kind of trout to stock, and where to stock, and when to stock based on water temperature and other factors,” says Southam. “It’s real world. Getting kids to wrestle with real problems, not just doing a lab for 45 minutes and then writing it off. They put all those systems together in a way that I think few other courses do out there in high school.
“It also draws kids in based on their interest in fishing,” he adds. “Kids who wouldn’t necessarily be super excited about spending three hours a day doing lab work, they can’t help themselves. It’s all part of the package, and it’s pretty neat. And, again, we have some of the best natural resources in the country right here.”
Nurturing Lifelong Learners
Back at the river, Parker’s students are testing what they’ve learned. They look at how the rocks break the water flow, the depth of the water column, the structure of the bottom and how those influence the speed of the current. They use their understanding of hydraulics to calculate where the fast water meets the slow and a fish can sit and watch food go by without exerting too much energy.
“It’s all part of the package, and it’s pretty neat. We have some of the best natural resources in the country right here.”
They’re building a skill set, Parker explains, and then testing those skills. Flyfishing is a way to validate their knowledge. It’s about mastery. The process is driven by their ability to understand nature enough to create their own artificial representation. The strike on the line is an affirmation of the work they’ve put into exploring the craft.
“You’re always getting that continual formative assessment,” says Parker, who also directs the Academic Skills Program. The learning students do in his course happens naturally, but it’s also intentional.
“It’s another kind of learning,” he says, “where there is always more to know. They’re driven to explore something more deeply, something more substantial. They gain an expansive set of skills, but also an awareness and an appreciation,” he says. “It’s the kind of experience that turns students into lifelong learners.”