Sailing the Sound in a Floating Classroom

May 23, 2009

Although this may seem like a joke, the punch line is true. A father is sailing the waters of Puget Sound with his child when the young boy spies an otter pup, portside. He is fascinated with the curious creature and so when the man gets  home, he pulls  out his son’s new Oxford Children’s Dictionary so his child can learn just a little bit more. Funny thing, “otter” isn’t listed. Nor are more than 100 other nature words like minnow, lobster, heron  and pelican. Why? To make room for technology terms like broadband, chatroom, MP3 player and blog. Even “blackberry,” the fruit, has been replaced by “Blackberry,” the handheld communication device.

In these fast-forward days of high-tech, the Oxford example is just one more indication that the faster kids plug into technology, the faster they are being disconnected from nature. So how do we stem the tide and help keep kids connected to the natural world? Salish Sea Expeditions has an answer.

With their Sea Investigators program, Salish Sea Expeditions connects students from 5th through 12th grade to nature through sailing and marine science. Kids from all over the state of Washington immerse themselves in the experience of being scientists and sailors. They head out on Puget Sound for three to five days on a 61-foot yawl, conducting science experiments of their own design while learning to sail. And what do they discover? A vibrant natural world that is a lifetime away from MySpace, YouTube and Xboxes.

The kids begin their journey long before they even set foot on the boat. Salish educators make pre-trip visits to the classroom, guiding the students to plan their expedition as a team. Together the kids decide where they’ll sail, where they’ll set up camp for the night, and what they’ll cook for each and every meal. The students even choose what they want to study – something usually unheard of in traditional school settings. When asked what they’re most interested in learning about when they’re out on the water, it’s not unusual for dozens of eager hands to immediately shoot up.

“So many kids want to study whales,” says Salish Sea Expeditions’ Education Director Jenny McColloch, “but it’s not exactly practical to haul an Orca on board for close study.” So frequently the students settle on learning about living creatures that affect an Orca’s habitat and are slightly smaller, like phytoplankton and zooplankton. Once  they  decide  what’s  feasible and what sparks their interest, Salish educators will help them to collaboratively come up with a scientific prediction – or hypothesis.

For instance, a prediction might go something like this: “If we collect plankton at various geographic locations, then we will find more plankton in shallow areas than in deep ocean water because of nutrient upwelling.” Whatever their prediction is, it will guide their research once their journey on the water begins.

Giving kids the power to help determine their own course of learning proves to be powerful and popular with kids. “I loved being able to plan the meals and to work as a class to figure out what would be a good problem and prediction,” enthused a 12-year-old from Seattle’s independent Bush School. “It made me feel less like a little kid and more like an adult.” It’s that kind of empowerment that can be transformational for children. By the time a class of students has organized their expedition and departed on their trip, they’ve already embraced the experience because they have helped to plan and direct it.

Anchors Aweigh!

Each expedition  always begins with excitement and eager anticipation. For many students, this will be their first time on a boat. For most, it’s their first scientific research expedition. After they board the 61-foot yawl, Carlyn, the students divide into two groups – Wind Watch and Water Watch. One group begins the journey learning to navigate and sail. The other gets to work gathering the data they’ll need to test their scientific prediction. Niskin bottles are deployed to measure and analyze water samples. Zooplankton will be studied and counted under microscopes. Data will be collected and crunched. Halfway through the day the groups will switch. Scientists will become sailors, and sailors will become scientists.

Joel Semanko, a parent whose eighth grade son has participated in two Salish Sea Expeditions programs, went along as a chaperone on a trip through the San Juan Islands. A sailor himself, Semanko fully understands the power of teaching kids to navigate the waters. “When I look around I see no idle hands. Everyone is busy. Everyone has something to do and they are learning how interdependent they are in the system. So it all ties together into what the program is. I mean, it takes a team to sail a boat, and it takes a team of scientists to accomplish the research that they’re doing.”

Teamwork is a keyword that drives Salish’s program. Even at the end of a long day of sailing and science,  the  two  teams  still  have work to do. They navigate the boat into shallow waters and drop anchor. Half the group rows to land and they work together to set up camp. The other half stays on the boat. The kids work in teams to cook their own meals – one group in the boat’s galley, and the other in a makeshift camp kitchen on shore. The next night the two groups will switch so that everyone will have a chance to camp on shore and to be lulled to sleep on the boat by the lapping waves.

Throughout the trip, the staff hands more and more responsibility over to the students. “This is by design to help them build confidence,” says Mt. Baker Middle School teacher, Jeff Whidden, who has taken his science class out every year for the past eight years. “As the trip goes on, the staff gives the reins over to the kids so that later on in the trip the kids are taking the responsibility of actually being in control of the boat. So there’s kind of a sense of gaining power for the kids as they gain their skills. I think that’s a very important part of the whole educational  equation.”

The educational experience doesn’t end when the kids sail the vessel back to home port. Once they’re back on dry land and back at school, the Salish educators return to the classroom to help the students crunch the data they collected during their scientific experiments and they guide them to determine whether they have proven or disproven their scientific prediction.

And how does it all impact the kids? For most it will be one of the most memorable experiences of their school career. For some it is transformative. Take Tameka, a high school student who attends a public high school in Seattle. According to her teacher, she failed both 10th grade Biology and 11th grade Chemistry. Since the Salish trip she’s become the treasurer of the school’s Environmental Club. Her teacher reports that, “She is dearly loved by the school’s fiscal specialist who wishes that everybody could be as responsible and mature as Tameka.”

Or there is the story of young Ben. “I can’t believe what you did for this little boy,” read the evaluation from his teacher. Salish educators had been warned that Ben was difficult and sullen, with a negative attitude and disruptive behaviors. The educators instead saw a challenge. They tailored aspects of the program to meet Ben’s needs, gave him individual challenges that drew him out and into the group. By the end of the trip, a boy who would previously not make eye contact was grinning and he even started a hug train.

Powerful Learning for Kids

The Salish program creates powerful learning  for kids. The  most significant piece of the puzzle is Salish’s model of hands-on, inquiry-based learning. It’s been demonstrated that kids learn more deeply if they can take classroom knowledge and apply it to real world situations. In a University of Wisconsin study of inquiry-based learning, it was shown that this method of learning has a more significant impact on student performance than anything else, including a student’s background or their earlier achievement. It is proof that involvement leads to understanding.

When you add in the boating component, the impact is enormous. Boaters are well aware of how life on the water builds confidence, self-reliance, and a connection to the natural world.  For students on a Salish journey, the impact is eyeopening and deep.

Take Liz, a high school student whose perception of education was completely changed after her trip on Carlyn. “I used to look out at the Sound and just see water. Then I went out on a Salish trip and discovered the details below the water. When I got back to school I wondered what details I was missing in all my other subjects.” It was a profound insight that changed her view of education forever.

Launching With a Dream

Salish Sea Expeditions launched its first expedition twelve years ago, but the vision for the non-profit was conceived in 1994 by cofounders Kathy Murphy and Sophy Johnston. That year, Four Winds*Westward Ho Camp on Orcas Island, Washington, was planning the construction of a sailboat to be used by the camp during the summer months. Murphy and Johnston, who were well experienced in the world of boat-based education, saw a fabulous opportunity to create a unique science education program that would put the vessel to good use during the school year. After talking with teachers and administrators, it was clear that there was a need for a program to give middle and high school students the chance to learn how to do real science through student-designed, boat-based research expeditions.

And so as the construction of the new vessel progressed, so did the plans for Salish Sea Expeditions. In fact, the vision for the program became a significant influence on the vessel’s design. In 1996, the 61-foot vessel was completed and christened Carlyn. That same year, Salish was granted its non-profit status. The first programs were launched in the spring of 1997 and since then Salish has quickly evolved into a full-fledged educational institution, taking kids on the  water during the  fall and spring months of the school year.

Salish serves 30 schools and 650 students a year. Seventy-five percent of the schools are public schools and 25% of the students come from low income families. Most students live in Washington State, but as Salish’s local reputation has grown, the word is out nationally. Over the last several years, students from schools in Colorado, Wyoming and Alaska have participated in Salish programs.

Executive Director Stephen Streufert, who works from Salish’s small headquarters in a tidy rental house on Bainbridge Island, is proud of how far the organization has come in such a short time. He works amid the comings and goings of a young, bright and enthusiastic seasonal staff who bunk in the basement when they’re not on the water with the kids

Streufert observed that he is touched and honored when he reflects on the widespread and growing support of Salish. “One of the things that amazes me is how Salish has become a leader and a model in the outdoor education world. People from other organizations come up to our staff at conferences and say, ‘we want to be more like you.’ It’s  very humbling. And  as our success grows and schools come back year after year, one of our goals is to find ways to expand our reach to more students, so that more kids can experience that feeling of connection to the natural world, can be excited about science, and can grow in their abilities to be self-reliant and to work cooperatively with each other.”

Reaching More Students

Streufert and his barebones staff work hard to expand Salish’s reach to more kids and to deepen the learning experience for those students who have been out on Carlyn. Because Salish currently has access to only one boat – with dreams to add a second one to accommodate their waiting list of schools – they knew they  had to come  up with another program.

This  spring  Salish  launched Sound and Source, a watershed-based program funded by NOAA. Sound and  Source  allows  teachers  to  extend their students’ learning from the Sea Investigators experience and bring into the fold many more students from their school who haven’t been  out  on  Carlyn.    In  this  enhanced vision of the program, those thirty kids who experienced the on-the-water  expedition  and  have learned the nitty-gritty of science research,  return  from  their  trip armed with a storehouse of knowledge and a stockpile of enthusiasm. They merge with other science students at their school, serving as mentors, and together they dive into the Sound and Source curriculum. The curriculum is driven by student curiosity and customized for teachers by Salish educators. Over the course of a semester, or even a year, the students are immersed in an extended inquiry-based science program, conducting watershed research projects that are anchored with a strong field-based component. At the end of the project, students will present at a symposium with other participating schools, local scientists and community members.

“It’s important to raise kids’ awareness about this critical time in the ecology of our watersheds and the Puget Sound,” says Streufert. “With this new program, kids will  discover for themselves just how fragile our aquatic ecosystems are. It’s far more powerful for them to make those kinds of discoveries and connections themselves instead of to simply be told.”

Understanding the deterioration of the local waterways and Puget Sound can’t come a moment too soon. The ecosystem is challenged by four million people living in the region with 1.5 million more expected in the coming years. Each day 150,000 pounds of toxic oil, lead, mercury, sewage and other pollutants flow untreated into these waters. More than 20 Puget Sound species are at risk of vanishing or are already gone. Orcas are dying of starvation and beaches are closed because of pollution. It’s critical for the next generation to understand the impact and significance of the problem. With students’ immersion in programs like Sea Investigators and Sound and Source, it’s Salish’s hope that as kids grow into adults they will becomes responsible stewards of the Sound.

Dwight Jones, General Manager of Elliott Bay Marina, sees first hand many of the Salish expeditions as they depart from his marina, and he watches the kids return with an enthusiasm for their experience and the environment.  Says Jones, “It is a joy to see young people develop a passion for sailing and science. The two are linked in so many ways, no one wants to recreate in a polluted environment! We all need to take some responsibility and play an active role in the education of our young people. Salish does a wonderful job of providing educational opportunities and sailing experiences that will last a lifetime.”

The Hope of Boosting WASL Scores

Salish also figures that with more kids’ exposure to hands-on, inquiry-based science,  not only will  they discover a passion for science and life-long learning, their efforts will also help to turn around failing WASL scores. With two-thirds of Washington 10th graders failing the science portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) every year for the past four years, it’s evident that kids aren’t engaging with science. Studies show that if education holds meaning for students, then they will be far more likely to retain their learning. As the old saying goes, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” Because Salish’s programs are designed around student involvement, they draw kids in and give meaning to their learning.

Take it from eighth grader Ian, who went on a Salish Sea Expeditions trip with his Mt. Baker Middle School science class.  “I  am definitely a more hands-on kind of person,” he reflected. “And you can learn a lot more by going out and actually doing science instead of just simulating it in a classroom.”

Whidden, his science teacher, sees that kind of engagement from his students across the board. “There’s no better way to learn science than to go out and do it like this. And because of this program, I think there is a high probability that some of these kids will wind up going into marine biology, or oceanography or environmental science or something like that. Because Salish is a very powerful experience, kids that I’ve talked to who have gone on previous trips have a new passion and direction in science. I’ve heard it from them. I’ve heard it from their parents.”

Into the Future

As Salish Sea Expeditions looks into the future of outdoor education and its positive impact on children, this innovative program sees signs of great hope. At the end of many trips, students write notes to the staff that are collected like small treasures around the Salish office because they confirm that Salish is making a difference in so many kids’ lives. These notes tell stories of kids who suddenly felt important when they never had before. Kids who were at first afraid to be out on the water but then fell in love with sailing. Kids who for the first time ever felt the importance of responsibility and teamwork. Kids who had no interest in science who are now inspired to consider a career in science. And a note from one young boy who  was amazed to  spy his first otter on the portside of Carlyn. Down the line they have a larger vision. Salish Sea Expeditions would like to add a second vessel to its small fleet of one so that more kids can experience their programs. And they share the wish of Cedar Way Elementary School Principal Hawkins Cramer. “If I were to be granted one  wish for every  sixth grader in our district,” he said, “It would be for each one to participate on a Salish Sea Expedition. I believe that the learning they experience during this one week could possibly be the most important week of learning in their entire K-12 academic career.”

Hopefully someday his wish will come true.


Arnold, Laurie Bauman“Sailing the Sound in a Floating Classroom,” NW Yachting Magazine, May 2009. 

Media Inquiries

For Media Inquiries please contact Brenna Sowder at (206) 780-7848 or info@salish.org