BELFAST — Call it vocational training on steroids. Students receive specialized instruction, conduct research and apply those skills in significant and real-world settings, while receiving credits for core high school courses. It serves as an example of what is possible with educational innovation and collaboration.

Welcome to the Belfast Area High School Marine Institute, a model of integrated learning.

“BMI introduces students to opportunities,” said science teacher Charles Lagerbom. “Those opportunities just happen to be available here in Maine and in the local area. It also allows them to receive credit in core courses as part of the program.”

Science, social studies and English mix with kelp farming, dive training, and operation of remote ocean vehicles (ROV) to create a learning environment that is anything but traditional.

The program is funded through a $1.35-million National Science Foundation grant. Belfast Area High School Assistant Principal Jessica Woods facilitates the grant with educators Lagerbom, David Thomas, Elizabeth Small, Danielle Bowler, Lisa White and Principal Jeff Lovejoy serving as program staff.

The BMI program partners with the University of Maine, Maine STEM, The RISE Center, and an organization name Rethinking and Revitalizing Education Ventures (RREV).

“It’s a unique program,” Lagerbom said, “specifically for students who live along the coast. They get a chance to not only see, but experience and participate in, career opportunities available right here in Maine.”

The program objectives include preparing students to be stewards of the Penobscot Bay watershed, introducing them to potential marine-related science and technological careers, identifying and solving coastal issues through student-led research, developing an appreciation and awareness of marine resources, and creating opportunities for students to participate in data collection, sampling and analysis.

Students involved in BMI are required to complete a combination of curriculum, community service, club participation, internships and a capstone project. Students can receive credentials and certifications for marine-based activities.

A sampling of subjects in the BMI curriculum includes marine studies, New England maritime history, oceanography and projects in engineering. Currently, 25 students are enrolled in the BMI program.

On a Thursday afternoon in early October, BMI students are found in the pool at BAHS, receiving cold water survival training from John McMillan, a professor at Maine Maritime Academy. A pair of students received scuba diving certification through the program earlier this fall. BMI students will also receive training and certification in CPR and Automatic External Defibrillators (AED) at a new MMA facility in Bucksport.

Belfast Marine Institute students receive cold water survival training from MMA professor David McMillan. Photo by Jim Leonard

“Those certifications are important,” Lagerbom said. “They look good on a resume, but they are also practical stills that translate to any career, particularly one on the water.”

Woods adds that having opportunities for certifications is a game changer.

“We tell our students the world is big, but it’s also small,” Woods said. “Allowing opportunities for certifications allows students to access the world differently. Say a student gets a scuba certification, and they are still in high school; suddenly, the ocean is available as a career path.”

BMI students ready for a scuba training session. Photo courtesy of Belfast Marine Institute

BMI students combine course work with research, internships and community service. The byproduct of this blend is an atypical learning environment. A prime example of this is BMI’s kelp farm.

Many high schools have aquariums. Most contain fish. Few contain marine commodities that will be grown and transplanted for use and sale.

This fall BMI students are busy setting a kelp farm, starting with several aquariums in the BMI wet lab. Using a spool of twine, kelp spores and extensive research, BMI students will grow kelp in the aquarium and transplant it to a 400-foot line set up in the water off City Park.

“We use a special kind of twine that will go into the tanks,” Lagerbom said. “The spores that are released from the kelp will adhere to the twine. We’ll examine the kelp’s growth under a microscope to see if the growth is at the proper stage. If not, we’ll check the temperature of the seawater and the lighting to see what adjustments need to be made.”

Several strands of twine will be connected to the larger line off City Park to allow kelp growth during the winter months.

“That’s a great time for kelp growth,” Lagerbom said. “There is less boat traffic and other activities that may interfere with growth. We’ll let it grow in nature during the winter and harvest it in April.”

Until the kelp is transplanted into the bay, students will chart its growth in the seawater tanks. Maintaining water temperature and proper lighting conditions will be critical, as will routine analysis of kelp samples as the November transplant date approaches.

Once transplanted the kelp will be checked periodically throughout the winter. BMI students will pull in their lines off City Park and inspect their product. The hope is that BMI will be able to use the program’s Remote Ocean Vehicle to monitor the status of the kelp growth throughout the winter months.

“That’s part of the plan,” Lagerbom said. “We will still haul up the line, but it will be good for our student to use the ROV to take a look at the strands.”

BMI has an ROV that will allow students to observe conditions underwater. Photo courtesy of Belfast Marine Institute

While the kelp grows in the bay, BMI students will study the uses of kelp while seeding the wet lab tanks with more marine commodities, like mussels, oysters or eel grass. All the while, students will study the uses and benefits of the marine commodities they are farming.

“Our goal is a complete pathway for the student who is interested in a career on the water,” Lagerbom said. “We’re getting a huge Rolodex of connections and people to draw from, which I find very exciting. This is kind of the future, in many ways.”