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  • Melissa Luetje and Leia Lowery

Gulf of Maine Studies: A GOMI Pilot Program

The Cape Porpoise Pilot is our earliest formed CBS Pilot and most developed. Kennebunk High School’s biology teacher, Melissa Luetje, is teaching “Gulf of Maine Studies” the first ever class at the high school on the Gulf of Maine. Students successfully completing this yearlong course will receive University credit at the University of New England. Simultaneously, for the first time, Dr. Pamela Morgan is teaching a similar University course. The classes are collaborating on a CBS project to convert Kennebunkport Conservations Trust’s Goat Island heritage lighthouse, from the grid to a sustainable energy source. Lowell Middlesex Academy, our urban Pilot, has faculty members Melissa Chen and Laura McGuigan teaching a new CBS course called “Keeping it Green.” Their partner in this is the Lowell National Historic Park. Bethlehem Elementary and the Newburyport pilots are in earlier planning phases and expect to have similar results by the fall of 2020. A fifth is planned for Nova Scotia. More will be forthcoming about these pilots in upcoming issues of the GOMI Journal. These pilots are noteworthy as they bring a new approach to teaching science and by extension teaching in general. By bringing local scientific experts together with community leaders and teachers students and mentors have far more resources to draw upon. In the words of Kennebunk High School Principal, Susan Creesey, “We are so grateful for the collaboration! It has taken science to a new level at KHS.” The approach promotes a now and future readiness grounded in the local and the bioregion. 1. Now because it tackles issues such as climate change in the present by preparing teachers and students to work on solutions with local scientists in the here and now. 2. Future-oriented because as students act locally as they are simultaneously learning to lead as scientifically informed and civically engaged future stewards. 3. Local, because students learn and problem solve within their communities on local climate change issues. 4. Bioregional, because teachers from throughout the bioregion share information and ideas by way of the GOMI Journal, our websites and through our annual working conference dedicated to connecting the local to the bioregional. We expect one result will be more young people who are excited to pursue related careers in science and technology. Just as importantly, we expect those who do not to be citizen stewards who actively involved in climate change decisions affecting their communities -The Editors

Gulf of Maine Studies: A GOMI Pilot Program

By Melissa Luetje

There comes a time in a teacher’s career that makes one reevaluate one’s chosen path. This takes place at different times for teachers, but it happens. Honing one’s craft and building relationships with students within the four walls of a science classroom can be confining. While I have always taken great pride in my job as a high school science teacher, I yearn for more. My ambition for being a quality educator runs deep, and therefore leaves me restless. I crave distinct experiences that I can make relevant to my students, and that feed my passion and ignite passion within my students.

If the four walls of my classroom seem confining to me, what must they be like for my students? How can science education be meaningful and applicable to my students’ lives, not only in their adult lives, but especially in the here and now? These are some of the driving questions that have lead me to GOMI, and our partnership with Leia Lowery at the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust (KCT) and Dr. Pam Morgan from the the University of New England (UNE).

Kennebunk High School (KHS), KCT, and UNE have joined efforts under the urging of the Gulf of Maine Institute in piloting an educational program that promotes community engagement, environmental stewardship, and civic action, things that have always been a part of my educational ethos. A course, called Gulf of Maine Studies was developed by Dr. Pam Morgan, Leia Lowery and me that expressly deals with the environmental concerns of the Gulf of Maine, through the lens of a local issue.

Kennebunk High School is located in Maine and is the high school for Regional School Unit (RSU) 21. RSU 21 is made up of three coastal communities: Arundel, Kennebunk, and Kennebunkport. UNE is in the neighboring coastal city of Biddeford. KCT owns many small uninhabited coastal islands that are quite literally in our students’ backyards. One of these islands, Goat Island, has a lighthouse on it, and is where our local issue lies.

The value of collaborative programming such as ours is that it directly addresses the confining nature of public education, and it tackles the importance of how to make science education lasting, relevant, and applicable to students’ futures. This initiative is innovative and forward-thinking. It takes advantage of our location on the coast of Maine, and is student-centered. Students will directly benefit from the collective wisdom of three passionate, place-based educators. Our students will collaborate with UNE students that are taking the same course, as well as with community members, and scientists. Through this experience, students will tackle real-life problems that don’t have an already known solution. Students will collect quantitative data in the field, and qualitative data by effectively interviewing community members. Students will then analyze and interpret these data, derive meaning from, and then proceed accordingly. During the winter months, students will engage in activities that build strong communication and listening skills. This will be a particularly effective life skill, especially with those who have differing viewpoints than they do.

More importantly, the experiences that the students will have in this class, out in the field, working on an authentic problem, and interacting with people who they otherwise would not, within their own community, will be indelible and formative. These students will be able to consider and honor multiple viewpoints, and think deeply. By the very nature of scientific inquiry, students will experience failure, and that failure will lead to success, even if success isn’t abundantly clear at first.

From KHS’s perspective: Kennebunk High School

Principal, Susan Cressey, states that, “This course is an example of place-based learning, given that we live on the coast of Maine. The students are doing authentic activities to address environmental issues that impact their lives on a daily basis. We appreciate the fact that our high school students can take a college-level class through this connection with The University of New England, and we are equally appreciative of the fact that both schools are contributing to the well being of the community through this course. Finally, it has provided professional development in that our Kennebunk High School teacher, Melissa Luetje, has had the opportunity to work with Dr. Pam Morgan of UNE, Leia Lowery of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, and John Terry of the Gulf of Maine Institute.”

From KHS students:

  • I signed up for this class because I enjoy focusing on a slightly more specific issue than many of the other classes offered by the high school. Instead of learning about an entire field of science, this course applies to science in our backyard, and gives us an opportunity to effect change in our local community.

  • I am most looking forward to getting out and interacting with our community. We spend so much time at school and at sports practices that I am not super familiar with the larger community of our town and region.

  • I think this class will give me a better look at the state of our environment on a local level, which will enable me to have the information that I need to help effectively.

  • This class is great for hands on learning and is focused and specific, making it a good learning opportunity for KHS students to learn and apply their knowledge to their own community.

Because of this GOMI pilot, my restlessness is nourished, my passions are fueled, and the distinctive experiences that I crave for myself and my students are attainable and a reality. For my students, the confinement of the four walls of a classroom can now be viewed through a new lens and expanded. This unique opportunity will inform their mindset and have a profound impact on their spirit, as well as mine!


A volcanologist wannabe and a high school science teacher in the here and now, Melissa Luetje is dually certified in physical and life sciences. A graduate of the University of Southern Maine with a BA in geology, and an MS in Teaching and Learning, she has taught at Kennebunk High School in Kennebunk, Maine, for 14 years. She has a zeal for experiential learning and extending the opportunity to all levels of students. With three international student service trips, introducing NXT Robotics to self-contained science students, starting a garden and greenhouse program for alternative education and regular education students, and writing and receiving grants, she is constantly looking for ways for her students to experience, learn, and apply science outside of classroom walls. She is proficient in curriculum design and implementation.

She and her husband live in Freeport; they met in a geomorphology class at USM and honeymooned in Iceland. They plan family vacations with their three daughters around their love of rocks and took their family to Nova Scotia last year for fossil and petrified wood collecting. Summers are spent on the waters of Casco Bay in the Gulf of Maine. Melissa's love for the Gulf of Maine permeates many facets of her life.

Kennebunk Land Trust

By Leia Lowery

The Kennebunkport Conservation Trust’s “Trust in Education” program has long collaborated with the local school system. While protecting land remains a major focus of our land trust, we also understand the need for future stewards. In the face of undeniable evidence that either the future generation needs to connect to our protected lands, or there will be no one to take care of the places we have preserved, we find the programming with the schools are not only invaluable but also critical.

Our educational programming with the local schools addressed the need to connect youth to the land. Are seeing a rising need for grassroots action to help preserve our threatened waterfront, and the way of life in our fishing community as we face the future challenges posed by the changes we see in the Gulf of Maine. The “Gulf of Maine Studies” class is a unique approach to learning. One that we hope will enable students to study the impending issues facing our community, as well as empower them to be civically active, participate in real-life problem solving. In addition our approach aims and create lasting change by involving our whole community in a conversation about its deep connection to the Gulf of Maine.

Environmental education classes often offered in high schools are wonderful, however, sometimes they are seen as overwhelming due to scope of the issues covered or simply irrelevant because they focus on places so foreign and far away from the students’ lives. In starting The Gulf of Maine Studies class, we hoped to bring the issues of climate change right into the backyard of our students. The approach seems to have energized them, and given them context for their classwork. One student in a pre-class survey stated, “I became interested in this class because I saw it as a unique opportunity to get involved with real local issues. In environmental class, I often get overwhelmed because of the feeling that the issues that we talk about are too big for me to personally do anything about. I think that this class provides a great means to become more educated on real-world problems while taking action locally.”

The value of a class like this for a land trust is immeasurable. The collaboration itself, working with a college, a high school, and the Gulf of Maine Institute has opened avenues of research that we would not have had the staffing to do ourselves. Having the intellectual resources to come up with affordable effective ways to do that research, has proven to be mutually beneficial to everyone involved. The creation of a real dialogue with the community also has untold benefits. The ability to connect with the community about issues facing our waterfront in a non-confrontational way, engaging in real conversations, will no doubt prove to empower our community to move forward together. To me this is one of the most powerful lessons we can be a part of. Learning the needs of the community, through listening to its members, and making them feel heard, to move us forward with a common understanding and vision, to problem solve the future will only make us stronger and more resilient. Lastly, engaging and empowering local students to look at their backyard in a new way, understanding its ecological importance and the complex social and economic relationships that we have with it, will strengthen the mission of the Land Trust, and recruit the engaged future stewards we will need in the coming years.

While collaborations like these are not easy (there are many needs to be met) I believe that it is not only beneficial to all, but also necessary. If we plan to tackle the issues facing our waterfront community with climate change, we need to empower and engage the people who live here. We no longer can depend on outside help, there is going to be more need than there is available help. We can make our communities not only resilient but vibrant, by engaging all the stakeholders, building a coalition of active citizens who all have a seat at the table. One student said it well, “I think that the value of this type of programming or type of course offer is very important. I think by getting kids involved in their community is beneficial for everyone that lives in the area."

The saying, “It takes a village” may very well be the mindset that really does save our village that we know and love, making it a resilient beacon of hope for an uncertain future.


Leia has worked in education for over 20 years. After receiving a master's degree from Virginia Tech, she spent 6 years in the classroom teaching agri-science before moving into teacher training and curriculum development for Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom. She currently serves as the Director of Education for the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. Leia's commitment to community conservation in her almost seven- year tenure as Director of Education has led to a greater reach in the community and the expansion of the Trust in Education program. Leia is dedicated to creating stronger communities through education and reconnecting people with their natural landscape and local history, in order to instill them with a stronger sense of place and encourage a future of conservationists.

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