The Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership provides immersive science education experiences for students in grades six to 12. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

HURRICANE ISLAND, Maine ― The Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership has broken ground on a $1 million field research station that will allow scientists — and visiting students — to conduct an array of offshore research, including research relating to climate change and fisheries.

The facility will be the first of its kind in Penobscot Bay. Through it, students participating in Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership programming can get a firsthand look at what it’s like to try to understand and seek answers to some of the most pressing challenges facing the globe.

“We want to send the message that thinking scientifically is a really good way to critically think about how to solve problems and we’re going to need that in this world,” Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership Director Bo Hoppin said. “We’re hoping this research station brings more diversity of research work here and more opportunities to integrate students [with that research].”

Located 12 miles offshore, Hurricane Island doesn’t look much different from other islands that dot the Maine coast. But its purpose is unique. Through school trips and weeklong summer programs for students in grades six through 12, the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership staff has turned the island and its surrounding waters into an immersive science classroom for hundreds of students who visit each year.

The island’s facilities itself are a lesson in sustainability. All of the electricity used on the island is generated using solar panels, several gardens supply the island kitchen with produce and waste is composted on site.

Through programming focused around the scientific method, research, marine biology and ecology, as well as the model of sustainability, there are opportunities for learning at nearly every turn on the island.

“Taking kids out of their element, putting them out here where they can see the sustainable systems we have in place, to work toward decreasing our imprint on this earth. They can participate in our effort to understand our local waters and ecosystems,” said Phoebe Jekielek, director of research for Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership. “It’s in your face out here. There is a teachable moment in every moment.”

The island’s infrastructure currently has space for up to 80 people in bunkhouses and through tent sites as well as a large mess hall, lab and classroom space. The new field station will create a better-equipped, dedicated lab space and provide more room for research, according to the organization’s director of research.

Jekielek sees the development as a way to create more of these “teachable moments.” By creating a dedicated lab space, Jekielek said the organization will be able to expand to dig deeper into its own research ― which is currently centered around scallop aquaculture ― and attract other scientists at the graduate and postgraduate levels.

Hurricane Island is an attractive location from a research perspective, according to Bob Steneck, a member of the organization’s board of directors and University of Maine marine science professor. The island is located near where Maine’s two coastal currents come together in Penobscot Bay.

With the eastern current having colder water temperatures than the western current, Steneck said it provides a convenient location in terms of conducting research related to the impacts of warming waters due to climate change.

“I think understanding climate change can be done in two ways. One, you set up monitoring and you work for decades. Or, you find places where you have proxies of warmer and cooler temps to get an insight in terms of what happens when a region warms,” Steneck said. “If you want one place where you could launch a research project, to look at warmer and cooler portions of the gulf of Maine, you really can’t ask for a better location.”

The research station itself will include both dry lab space for microscopes, computers and other research tools; as well as a flowing sweater lab where students and researchers can sort and examine collections and keep organisms alive for study. The building will also feature a classroom with space for 20 students, as well as an adjacent dock for water access and research vessels.

Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership has raised nearly $600,000 for the project, through a grant and fundraising effort, though is still working to raise an additional $400,000. Hoppin said work on the foundation will begin this summer and over the winter the building will be constructed in panels on the mainland. He hopes for the project to be completed by July 2022.

The organization requires that any researcher who utilizes the island interacts with the students in some way. Hoppin said that can be as simple as sitting down with them for a talk about their work over dinner, or having students help collect and sort samples. But Hoppin feels even these small interactions can have a lasting impact on a student’s life and education.

“One goal among many is to get students excited about science and maybe pursue a career in science, any science,” Hopping said. “The place is so inspiring and if they can see serious people doing their work then they could consider that as a career choice.”

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