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Creating Relevant, 21st-Century Curriculum by Leveraging Public/Private Partnerships

September 25, 2015 5 min read
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Today, Amanda Knight, Education Coordinator, Egan Maritime Institute, presents the steps taken to develop an 8th grade oceanography/maritime studies class at Nantucket Public School. While it may be specific to coastal towns, her work can serve as a model for how experiential learning and cultural enrichment programs with relevant 21st century themes can be developed by any community through creative public and private partnerships.


By guest blogger Amanda Knight

Located thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts, Nantucket Island, once the whaling capital of the world, is a popular vacation destination with a year-round population of 10,000 that swells to 50,000 during the summer months. Among the families that call the island their primary home are a diverse population with varying degrees of knowledge of Nantucket’s history and its seafaring traditions. Dedicated to bridging the gap between the island’s maritime legacy and today’s young Nantucketers, Egan Maritime Institute (EMI), a non-profit foundation, partnered with the island’s private and public schools to develop Sea of Opportunities (SoO), an educational curriculum for middle and high schools that reinforces students’ historical connections with the sea while exposing them to the maritime trades and sciences of the 21st century.

Step 1. Assessment of community needs
The creation of SoO was the outcome of a combined effort among many factions within our community to address a problem. Thirty miles out to sea, Nantucket was once an isolated community whose residents both respected and feared the surrounding waters. As technology eased access to the island, the population diversified, and reliance on the sea as a way of life lessened. As a result, we realized that we were losing our maritime heritage.

We conducted a community needs assessment, which incorporated interviews with stakeholders, including community leaders, non-profit organizations, parents, and other maritime programs. Specifically, these stakeholders were queried about the most appropriate ways to support the island’s heritage. The resounding call was for a program targeted at students and designed to enrich their future professional and personal lives by exposing them to maritime traditions, trades, and sciences. Paramount to the success of SoO and any similar program is starting with advocates within the community.

Step 2. Definition of school needs
With the community onboard, the next critical step was approaching the school and inviting educators to express their needs. The administration identified a need to support core academic learning that allowed students to construct their own knowledge and that could be measured through standardized assessments. Their vision for accomplishing this was by supporting the 21st century skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity within an experiential based course in which students could learn from, and about, their environment. Understanding and working within the school’s parameters ensured their continued participation and longevity for the program.

Step 3. Development of mutual goals

The partners then brainstormed intersections between the community needs, school needs, and the mission of preserving local culture, in an effort to develop a program that would address their mutual goals. The outcome was an 8th grade course that addresses the 21st century theme of environmental literacy while at the same time supporting the cultural literacy of the island. Specifically, the oceanography/maritime studies course provides the opportunity to support interdisciplinary science (i.e., earth, life, and physical science) while also making interdisciplinary connections (i.e., across the contents of science, history, English language arts, and math).

Moreover, all of this can be set within the context of the island or be applied to maritime-related concerns facing the world today. On a local level, students can be provided with seasonal data on the profile of Sconset beach across time and asked to present an argument on whether or not it should be protected from future erosion. Globally, the same question can be addressed about the effects of climate change and shifting coastlines—all leading to a discussion of shoals, shipwrecks, and 21st century navigation.

Step 4. Negotiation of financial commitment
The progressive vision, however, required a financial investment by both partners. While EMI agreed to fund the teacher salary, the school agreed to fund the benefits and provide classroom space. Both partners have also agreed to contribute to costs associated with transporting students around the island as well as the necessary equipment and materials.

Step 5. Adaptation
The 8th grade oceanography/maritime studies class is the third iteration of the program in as many years. In the first year, an elective course in maritime studies was offered for 6th graders, and it was expanded to the 6th and 8th grades during the second year. The third iteration added the oceanography component and is required of all students. Through these iterations, we have been able to further refine the vision and clarify the needs of the students, school, and community. This openness to change is necessary and requires continued dialogue and collaboration among partners.

Oceanography/maritime studies are a natural fit for Nantucket and will support the development of a citizenry that is informed about the island and opens students’ eyes to maritime career opportunities at home, nationally, and abroad. The Superintendent of Schools, W. Michael Cozort, has endorsed the program saying, “We believe that Sea of Opportunities is enhancing our school in the area of science, social studies, math, writing, and environmental education in many positive ways.” In the kids’ own words, “The class not only allows you to learn all about whaling, direction, and the ocean, but we do it in a dynamic way.” And, “It’s a lot of fun and we learned a lot about Nantucket history and navigation.”

While we anticipate the need to continue to refine the program, the partners are committed to supporting the cultural literacy of the island. Other communities, however, should consider which 21st century theme is most appropriate for them. For instance, schools within an urban setting could attend to environmental literacy by exploring urban ecology in their schoolyards. Global awareness, civic literacy, health literacy, or financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial studies are all critical 21st century topics that can be taught in today’s classroom with contributions from private and public stakeholders in communities nationwide.

Connect with EMI, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Egan Maritime Institute.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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