Kate Petrie raised her hand, extended the index and pinkie fingers in a kind of cryptic symbol and watched nearly 50 middle-schoolers transform instantly from boisterous to silent.
No, the Acadia National Park Ranger didn’t have any special powers that day, just the captive audience of some wide-eyed 13-year-olds.
That and a pretty amazing classroom behind her.
The eighth-grade class of Milford Elementary School spent last week at the Schoodic Education and Research Center, a picturesque facility nestled within the Schoodic district of Acadia National Park overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
There, Petrie and a team of seven other seasonal rangers hosted the Schoodic Education Adventure program, one of several educational opportunities offered by SERC and its only residential overnight program.
Getting 47 pupils to focus their attention on her isn’t an easy task for Petrie, so she made sure that the first thing the students learned when they arrived was this: When her hand goes up, mouths close.
With such a scenic locale at their disposal, she explained, idle time is not an option.
“Our goal is to wear them out,” Petrie said. “We want to take advantage of every single minute.”
The pupils from Milford spent an exhausting four days and three nights learning about topics such as geology, ecology, wildlife and marine resources.
Whatever Petrie and her staff had to teach the eighth-graders soaked up like poriferans, which they now know are sea sponges.
For, within the SEA program, everything has an instructional purpose.
“We want them to have a positive experience, first of all, but we want to mesh their curriculum with our mission,” said Petrie, who has been a park educator for several years and has led the adventure program since it started at SERC in 2002. “We start them when they get up at 7 [a.m.] and keep them going until 9 at night, so essentially we’re getting two school days out of them, only they don’t realize it.”
Milford Elementary School Principal Warren Kidder signed his eighth-graders up for the program last year after getting a flier in the mail.
He said last week that he couldn’t imagine getting more for his money than what his students took away from the Schoodic Education Adventure program.
“These rangers do an outstanding job. We can’t do what they do. Their expertise is unbelievable,” Kidder said. “You can try to teach kids some things, but until they experience it for themselves …” His voice trailed off briefly. “There is only so much you can get from textbooks.”
McKayla Gastia and Katelyn Day, both 13, sat in the shade last Thursday outside one of the classroom buildings at SERC, taking a much-needed snack break.
Sun blanketed the 100-acre campus, which only a few years ago was a U.S. Navy base but now is part of a network of research learning centers run by the National Park Service.
For Gastia, Day and their classmates, the facility and the SEA program offered a welcome break from the routine.
“It’s been really fun,” Gastia said. “It’s like we’re still learning, but it’s fun learning.”
“It gets us out of the classroom so we’re actually doing things,” Day added.
While there are some classroom assignments within SEA, the pupils never stay inside long, not when Maine’s beautiful fall weather beckons from the window.
Shortly after their snack break ended on this particular day, Joe Meyer, one of the seasonal rangers involved with SEA, led a group of about 12 students down a winding dirt path through the woods away from the classroom.
After a short half-mile trek, the trees thinned out and were replaced by large boulders and the shimmering blue water of the Atlantic, which rose up to meet the trail.
Meyer lectured about geology and how the rock formations along the shoreline reveal its history. Then he had the students sketch a portion of the rocks in their notebooks, which they would take back to the classroom to study further.
“It’s pretty cool to be able to see up close what you’re learning about. I think it makes it easier to understand,” Gastia said.
Meyer from Wisconsin recently graduated from college with a degree in biology and environmental education. He said he always wanted to come to the East Coast. Watching him interact with the children at SEA, it’s easy to see Meyer’s passion.
“I’ve always been interested in outdoor education,” said Meyer. “You can do so much more with them once you get outside the school walls.”
Petrie said it’s recent graduates like Meyer, in addition to the young students, who keep her excited about going to work each day.
“I really kind of fell into this job and stayed,” she said. “I love mentoring these kids and the teaching assistants. And of course the view isn’t bad, either.”
The hands-on field experience that the rangers offer makes the SEA program a popular one for students throughout the state. Already this year, 12 schools have signed up.
“We love to offer these types of things to our students, and we’ve found that they really respond and make it worth their while,” Principal Kidder said.
“We find children are asking questions more than they would if we were back at school. They’re genuinely interested,” added Kay Voyer, one of two Milford teachers who accompanied the students. “And they’re always looking for more, it never stops.”
The Schoodic Education Adventure program is just a highlight of what has been a busy year at SERC.
The facility is run by Acadia Partners, a nonprofit arm of Acadia National Park. Since taking over the former Navy base in 2002, SERC has gradually expanded its role as an educational institution, offering a wide range of services in a uniquely beautiful setting.
Petrie said one of the great things about the campus, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive from the Bangor area, is that there is plenty of housing.
“When we used to do this program before SERC opened, we did a camping trip, but that brought a whole host of other problems along with it,” she said. “Now we don’t have to worry about those things and we can really focus on the curriculum.”
The facility already has one-, two- and four-bedroom apartments and cabins, and earlier this summer, SERC coordinator Jim McKenna announced plans to convert an old bowling alley on the campus into a 70-bed hostel.
“We have been looking to target larger groups, particularly education groups looking to keep costs to a minimum,” McKenna said in June.
Kidder admitted that his eighth-graders fell into that cost-conscious category, but the four-day trip ended up costing the school only about $75 per pupil, which included all of their meals and lodging.
“You’re not going to find a program out there for that kind of bargain,” he said.
Listening to how students have been talking about the experience and how their voices rise with excitement is something Kidder said he couldn’t put a price on anyway.
After dinner last Thursday, shortly after the sun had dipped below the ocean, the eighth-graders followed the rangers on a night hike through the labyrinth of trees on campus. Many agreed that was their favorite part.
“It was really scary at first, but then your eyes adjust and it’s not so bad,” said Sonya Stevens, 13.
“We learned about how your eyes change and adapt to the lack of light,” added Daniel Gastia, McKayla’s twin brother.
Whether it’s educating about the merits of not wasting food or the importance of leaving no trace behind while hiking, the SEA staff is constantly teaching.
“We really have only a small window to educate, so the more we can put in their minds, that’s really our job,” Meyer said.
Though the Schoodic Education Adventure staff will greet a new group of pupils this week, putting the eighth-graders from Milford further back in their memory, Kidder doubts his pupils will forget their adventure.
“Anytime you can get your students to embrace learning in this way, it’s going to pay off exponentially down the road,” he said.
For more information on programs available at SERC, visit online www.nps.gov/archive/acad/serc.