Nantucket 101

•   by Sarah Teach   •

Outdoor Classroom

UMass Field StationMany Nantucketers thrive on being far removed from the rest of the world. But as much as we love the solitude and peace, there are also disadvantages to our remote location. We pay oodles more for gasoline; our winter produce might not be as fresh as on the mainland. Also, it is almost impossible for year-round Nantucketers to pursue quality higher education while on-island. Although we may not be able to slash our gas prices, several island organizations have teamed up with University of Massachusetts Boston in a step towards making college education achievable on
Nantucket.

This winter, Nantucket will welcome 20 University of Massachusetts Boston undergraduates who will participate in a pilot program The Living Lab. Open to upperclassmen majoring in Environmental, Earth & Ocean Sciences [EEOS] or Biology, the program will span three full months, beginning  January 20, and will provide students with 16 credits. Heading up the program is Dr. Robyn Hannigan, chairperson of UMass Boston’s Environmental Earth and Ocean Sciences Department. Hannigan says, “A full-credit semester on Nantucket [is an idea that] UMass faculty has been kicking around for years.” However, this isn’t UMass Boston’s first time instituting an on-island curriculum. On several occasions as early as the 1960s, the university has offered a program called “Semester on Nantucket,” an interdisciplinary program that included courses taught by locals. But Hannigan wants this program to be a permanent fixture on the island. She hopes the UMass presence here will eventually expand to include 200 students, undergraduates and graduate, and add 20-30 UMass faculty members to Nantucket’s year-round community.

The curriculum itself will consist of five courses covering a variety of subjects, including Nantucket history, but will be based in the natural sciences.Hannigan says, “The Living Lab semester is truly integrative across environmental disciplines and is deeply dedicated to fostering community among the students, [as well as] between the Nantucket Community and our common environmental future. The goal of our pilot program is to initiate a deeply engaging environmental experience that transforms these students and adds significant depth and breadth to their training as environmental
leaders. Within this goal are objectives that will leverage the cultural and natural resources of Nantucket to better support science and conservation on the island and to expand our University’s presence on island as an educational partner for all islanders.” Hannigan describes the students’ day-to-day agenda: “[It] will typically involve 3-5 hours in the classroom and an additional 2-3 hours in the field doing research or doing classrelated work. As a ‘living lab,’ Nantucket provides our students will fantastic opportunities to take their classroom knowledge outside to study environmental phenomenon, so we expect the students to be both inside and outside each day. As the semester progresses, their courses shift to more outside-based research and project implementation components. The experience is also about community building, so students will be participating in a number of activities with the Nantucket community and also developing environmental activities for local kids and kids at heart.” Hannigan also expresses a desire to draw UMass’s attention to the Field Station. She says, “Obviously, the 107 acres of the Field Station will be used as much as possible.” Dr. Sarah Oktay, year-round islander and Managing Director of the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station, is excited about the opportunities that the program will bring to year-round residents. Oktay is hopeful that the university will permit a proposed course called Eco-poetics, which ties verse with ecology. If approved, island poet Len Germinara will teach the class.

One of the central objectives for The Living Lab is that students will be able to help brand the Nantucket bay scallop. Hannigan, a geochemist, has developed a method for ensuring a scallop’s authenticity that involves testing the mineral content of its shell. With countless reports of counterfeit Nantucket bay scallops being sold online, of course Hannigan isn’t the only one with an interest in protecting Nantucket’s scallop market. In 2010, the Nantucket Shellfish Assoc. hired UMass Boston’s Urban Harbors Institute human influence on the health of Nantucket’s bay scallops, among other items. The Living Lab will enable students to build upon UHI’s work and hopefully develop a solid system for ensuring the market’s continued success.

Another ally in this endeavor is the Nantucket Conservation Foundation (NCF), which exists to preserve Nantucket’s character through permanent management of 9,000 acres of island land. The NCF owns the Polpis Road property upon which the UMass Field Station sits, and has allowed UMass to use the land. Jim Lentowski, NCF’s Executive Director, says, “The Foundation and other nonprofits across the island could benefit greatly from good science and research being done on the island. [UMass] finally saw the light and recognized the opportunity that exists [at the Field Station].” He chuckles and shifts his focus to Nantucket’s year-round population.    “I’ve raised two children on the island,” says Lentowski. “And I think this is a great chance for island [youth] to get a taste of college life while still at home in a safe environment.”

“In order for the pilot program to be considered successful,” Hannigan says, “the students must demonstrate learning gains above and beyond what they would acquire through on-campus classes. Secondly, the aim is that the program will enrich the island’s culture. And on a personal note,”    Hannigan confesses playfully, “I want this to be something that my peers [look at] with envy!” The Living Lab, and the opportunities that it represents, is a big step forward for Nantucket. Our shellfish economy is moving forward, and the chance for us to achieve higher education on-island is coming within our grasp.