By Caryn B. Davis­/Photos Courtesy NESS

One of the most wonderful things about summer, besides the fact that there is no more snow and it’s warm, is being on the water. At New England Science & Sailing (NESS) located in Stonington, Connecticut, adults, families, teens, and children have the opportunity to engage in a wide variety of ocean adventure programs designed to build confidence, teamwork, and leadership skills while fostering a deeper appreciation and connection to our aquatic world.

NESS was originally established as a community sailing program in conjunction with the Stonington Harbor Yacht Club in 2002. It began with fourteen children but has grown significantly over the past twelve years teaching 3,200 students (from age four to adult) in 2014 alone. They have since expanded their offerings to include adventure sports and marine science, both on land and sea and have forged partnerships with other communities, schools, and organizations in Connecticut and Rhode Island that include the Mystic Aquarium, the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, the Williams School, the Stonington Fishing Fleet, Marine Science Magnet High Schools, US Sailing REACH Program, the Pine Point School, and others.

NESS is appropriately located on the site of an old oyster hatchery and lobster pound in Stonington Harbor. It is comprised of one main building that houses their administrative offices, a science lab with cameras, computers, and microscopes, and a multipurpose classroom with touch tanks brimming with snails, hermit crabs, small lobsters, fish, and sea urchins that are kept alive year round. A series of outbuildings overlooking the docks provides additional classroom space in the warmer months and storage for their 75 sailboats, 16 powerboats, life jackets, snorkeling gear, paddleboards, surfboards, kayaks, fishing poles and nets, boogie boards, and windsurfers. Classes are offered year round, after school, and during vacations; but in the summertime students can sign up for full day or half day classes which are held weekly, rain or shine. Last year 650 students from 21 states participated in their nine week summer camp.

Surrounded by 500 acres of salt water, brackish, and fresh water marine ecosystems, all accessible within 15 minutes by watercraft, NESS’ backyard is literally their classroom. A quick powerboat ride over to East Beach or Napatree Point in Rhode Island provides the necessary waves to learn the mechanics of surfing and boogie boarding. In contrast to the pounding surf, Little Narragansett Bay with its estuaries, coves, and islands, offers a protected and serene experience for kayaking and snorkeling while learning about the local flora and fauna. In Fishers Island Sound and Long Island Sound students are taught how to sail and safely operate a powerboat while learning navigation, docking, anchoring, maneuvering, line handling, and racing techniques.

At nearby Quanaduck Cove, Ram Island, Fishers Island, Barn Island, and Sandy Point students can participate in a variety of marine science projects that utilize age-based field studies, lab experiments, and hands-on activities. As they explore and investigate our coastal lands and waterways, students learn about aquaculture; hydroponics; how to fish with rods and nets; animal survival; aquarium and terrarium care; weather, currents and tides; the effects of pollution and  environmental impact; watershed health; water quality and testing; and all the amazing plant and animal life from shellfish to algae, from plankton to seals, that inhabit the natural world.

All of Ness’ programs follow a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) based education curriculum and encompass the same core values of ­­“Experiential Learning (Actively engaging students through doing, seeing, feeling, and inquiring for more-than-just-hands-on, full body, multi-sensory experiences that heighten learning);

  • Personal Growth (Taking students on and in the water, out of their comfort zones to places they literally and figuratively have never been before, leading to transformational personal discovery and empowerment);
  • Inclusiveness (Opening doors to on-the-water learning and personal growth for all, regardless of financial means or intellectual or developmental abilities);
  • Stewardship: (Fostering connections between students and their communities and the natural environment, engendering relevancy, respect, and protection.)”

“We want our students to take away more than just knowledge from our programs. We want them to dig down deep to learn something about themselves. Maybe they find the courage to go out on a boat, or into a salt marsh, or the courage to reach their hand into the water to pick up a crab,” says Cindy Nickerson, Executive Director of NESS. “ We want them to discover a sense of independence, confidence, and the tenacity to do things they never thought they could do before. And we want them to make those connections that will encourage them to protect the ocean and understand why it is important to their lives.”

NESS is a non-profit organization that relies on monetary and in-kind donations, grants, and funding derived from their program fees in order to operate. They employ four full time program directors, two full time educators, and 17 seasonal staff members. When selecting staff, they look for people with outdoor education experience who love children and being around them and who are dedicated and passionate about what they do. Their educators have degrees in marine science, biology or math, but are not all Connecticut state certified instructors, as their methodology for teaching is inquiry based.

“We don’t teach in a traditional way with the teacher at the front of the room imparting knowledge to the children seated at desks. The teacher is more of a guide. They guide the students through a lesson plan or learning process. The children come up with questions, and we answer them. It is really interactive,” explains Nickerson.

During the school year, NESS hosts a series of traveling programs they offer to different school systems which can also include custom designed lesson plans and curricula tailored to those children with special needs. And if a child cannot financially afford to participate in any of their other programs, scholarships are available to ensure education remains accessible for everyone.

Their programming is as diverse as the variety of creatures that exist in the sea. For example, they have a 47 foot life-size inflatable whale called Lucy that students can actually walk inside of to examine its internal anatomy. Another class entails drafting, designing, engineering and building a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) for exploring our underwater world; while another teaches children about sustainable seafood farming – how it grows, how it is caught, the environment it is raised in, and the impact over-fishing has had on our oceans. Other programs include dissecting a fish, squid, or clam to learn about the anatomy and physiology of an animal; the long term monitoring of a local stream, pond, river or marsh to study the salinity, the temperature, the pH and the dissolved oxygen to see if it is capable of sustaining life; and exploring the physics of why and how a boat can float by building a model from recycled materials.

In New London at the Benny Dover Jackson Middle School, NESS has partnered with AmeriCorps and maintains a classroom there where AmeriCorps members tutor and mentor students to provide additional academic support. After school and during the summer months, they converge upon Ocean Beach Park, also in New London, where they maintain a shipping container filled with ocean going gear used to learn marine science, sailing, and adventure sports. It is available to students from Benny Dover, students from the STEM Magnet Middle School (SMMS), and different New London community organizations.

“We open up the container doors, and we are twenty feet from the creek. We offer marine science, adventure sports, and sailing. It builds life skills, self-esteem, and citizenship and connects them to their own community and environment when they can explore right in their own backyards,” says Nickerson.

Nickerson got involved with the organization about five years ago. Her husband was a board member and asked if she could help for one summer. But Nickerson fell in love with the place and has been NESS’ director ever since.

“When you hear what the kids say and see the expressions on their faces, it is just so rewarding. We see their excitement, their growth. We see them do things they have never done before,” she says. “What we hear our students say most often is: ‘I feel like I can do anything.’ It is so empowering for them to be out on the water either in a motorboat with people they don’t know, doing something they are not really comfortable with, or in sailboat by themselves, and they are the one in charge. It is so empowering for them. They get super confident, and it’s amazing to watch.”

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