Students set sail to save the Salish Sea

When the first of 200-plus elementary students from the South Whidbey School District stepped aboard vessels in the Langley harbor this week, the concept of “field trips” was forever transformed. At least on Whidbey Island.

The Carlyn scientific research vessel and the Lady Washington historical “tall ship” sailed in and out of Langley from Wednesday through Friday, teaming with enthusiastic fourth and sixth graders while launching an innovative and immersive place-based education program.

Susie Richards, principal of South Whidbey Elementary School K-4, explained how programs like this help relieve the pressure young people today feel over what’s happening with the environment and climate change, and it gives them a real way to make a difference.

“We’re going to really have a focus on the Salish Sea that surrounds our beautiful island and help our kids feel more connected to it,” Richards said. “It will help their academic learning have meaning and relevance as related to their local home and local community.”

When exploring the outdoors through expeditions such as the sailings this week, students may forget there’s some in-depth learning going on. From skill-building to collaborations, problem-solving and seeing marine life through scientific lenses, they are connecting with the world around them in new ways.

The Carlyn is a 61-foot yawl designed specifically for experiential education. It hosted the sixth graders on Thursday and Friday for a marine science program. The boat is part of Salish Sea Expeditions, whose mission is to inspire youth to “connect with the marine environment through boat-based scientific inquiry and hands-on learning, instilling curiosity, confidence, and critical thinking.”

This translates into hands-on-deck experiences and education about the ecosystem, water-quality issues and nautical science in several stations while sailing. The students worked in areas such as navigation, latitude and longitude, salinity, analysis with oceanographic equipment, and observing plankton and microplastic through microscopes in the onboard lab.

On Wednesday, the Carlyn embarked on a journey carrying a group of fifth- to sixth-grade girls funded by a “No Child Left Inside” grant created by the state Legislature. The program facilitates outdoor environmental and other natural resource-based education to encourage academic performance while building things like self-esteem, personal responsibility, health and understanding of nature.

On Thursday and Friday, the South Whidbey fourth-graders boarded the Lady Washington for a Washington State History expedition. It was “all hands on deck” as the boys and girls helped to set and trim the sails before gliding out to sea.

Capt. Jamie Trost cut the engines while deckhands called for silence as the wind gently rocked the vessel. After a moment, the students were asked what they “didn’t” hear, and the answers came quickly: honking cars, cannons, cell phones, televisions. The point was obvious: Being aboard Lady Washington was like falling back to days gone by.

The crew made the past come alive as students rotated through three onboard stations. Joining Trost on the upper deck, they studied the science of speed, depth, direction and timekeeping. The young sailors then ducked below deck to get schooled in trade routes and cargo with artifacts and maps.

On the bow, boys and girls wrinkled up their noses at the smell of pig snouts and other sailor grub while learning how their swarthy ancestors survived on extended journeys. Sea shanties and stories ended the day’s work in much the same way sailors of old passed time on the high seas.

Lori O’Brien, the part-time environmental and sustainability coordinator whose position in the South Whidbey school program is funded through the parent and community-instigated “Growing our Potential Campaign,” noted that the students benefit from a plethora of interconnected programs and related organizations.

Young girls benefit from the school’s partnership with “Young Women Empowered” organization from Seattle in which island girls go to places like Microsoft to sit down with female scientists. As part of the Washington Green Schools initiative, students will be focusing on plastic awareness, recycling and food waste.

“We’ve also established relationships with Whidbey Watershed Stewards and with the Orca Network. All grades K-8 will get Orca 101, a class offered by the network,” O’Brien said.

A major component of the place-based curriculum for the 2019-20 school year is a salmon program through which students will learn about the salmon life cycle by actually raising them on campus.

“Salmon are an indicator species, so they can tell us how healthy the ecosystem is,” O’Brien said. “We’re going to raise salmon at this school and at the 5-6 school and then release them in the spring.”

Richards stressed that this approach to hands-on, activity-based learning isn’t about putting academics aside.

“The research is already out there showing the connection of these types of learning experiences to academic achievement,” Richards said. “It really captures kids in a way that just can’t happen in a traditional learning approach.”

O’Brien and Richards pointed out that each program incorporates elements of learning in meaningful ways.

For example, there could be a writing activity requiring a persuasive essay about why residents should be reducing waste and toxins before they get into the Salish Sea. Composting exercises can reveal elements of science, while data collection strengthens math skills, all connecting to academic learning through “a sense of place.”

Jo Moccia, superintendent of the South Whidbey School District, supports the all-encompassing approach to learning, noting that she personally would be taking one of the sailing excursions from Langley with the kids this week.

“I am so pleased that we are able to offer these opportunities to our students,” Moccia said. “Our community has many outdoor adventures to experience, and we want to continue to provide them to students as we are able. Teaching young people to care for the environment, specifically our Salish Sea, is critical to the future.”

Katie Shapiro, one of the volunteers helping to spearhead the “Growing our Potential” program, explained that the South Whidbey Schools Foundation serves as the fiscal agent through which the program is funded. Community members can make a donation by clicking the “growing our potential” link at

Students set sail to save the Salish Sea
The Carlyn scientific research vessel and Lady Washington historic “tall ship” await students from South Whidbey Elementary school at Langley harbor. Photo by Wendy Leigh/South Whidbey Record.

The Carlyn scientific research vessel and Lady Washington historic “tall ship” await students from South Whidbey Elementary school at Langley harbor. Photo by Wendy Leigh/South Whidbey Record.