A Summer of Fieldwork, Data Analysis and Friendship in Belfast

This summer, high school students from across the US took part in an Integrated Science and Career Exploration Early College Course at the UMaine Hutchinson Center in Belfast. They collected data on microplastics on Sears Island, conducted experiments in sophisticated biology and chemistry labs, tested their hypothesis, interviewed STEM professionals and made lasting friendships.


Eva came all the way from California to take the course. Sadie organized her summer job(s) around it. Albert’s parents drove him to and from Bangor to Belfast every day to participate in it. For what? Integrated Science and Research and Career Exploration, also known as INT 188.

This summer, seven high school students from across the US took part in a five-week Integrated Science and Career Exploration Early College Course at the UMaine Hutchinson Center in Belfast. They sampled the sand on nearby Sears Island, looking for microplastics. They handled crabs and zebrafish embryos and researched the effects of green crab predation on clams in Belfast harbor. They designed their own research methodologies and built their own quadrats and extractors. They learned how to turn a light on and off using Arduino (an open-source electronic prototyping platform enabling users to create interactive electronic objects). They analyzed their data and confidently reported their findings, microphone in hand, standing in front of their posters at a small symposium in front of their families and community members, in polished shoes and freshly-ironed ensembles.

In addition to the hard STEM skills students acquired in the course, they explored relevant research questions, applicable to the environmental problems of today. They made mistakes and were given enough time to try again. They researched questions that mattered to them. And they made a few new friends along the way–something that’s been hard to do given the impact of the pandemic on the life of the average high school student.

Ruth Havener, of Medomak Valley High School, said her mother was looking for summer programs for her when they came across INT 188 in the newspaper. (Note: want to find out about all things Hutchinson Center? Sign up for our email list!) After a challenging school year due to COVID, Havener was delighted to be taking an in-person class. She appreciated that the class attracts students with similar interests—it’s not every day you meet high schoolers obsessed with glaciers!

Havener enjoyed collecting her own data, getting her own samples, using a real lab, and perhaps most of all, that she and her classmates got to study relevant, contemporary issues. “We got to study things that actually matter,” Havener said. During the course, Havener and her classmates sampled sand from several points along the shore at Sears Island, where 5,000 pounds of plastic bound for an incinerator spilled at Mack Point cargo facility in Searsport in December 2020. The students used microscopes to look at the microplastics. “The fibers look like little strings. It makes you realize that plastics really are everywhere,” Havener noted. She was already interested in micro-plastics before taking the course and was grateful to be able to take her knowledge to the next level.

As part of their experience in the class, students conducted one-on-one virtual interviews with professionals in fields of interest to them. Havener interviewed forensic pathologist, Dr. Peter Cummings. After completing high school, Havener is considering a degree in biochemistry and going on to earn a master’s degree in the sciences. (When she was in seventh grade, she won the ninth annual Doodle 4 Google contest for Maine!) In a regular science class at her high school, if Havener contaminated her sample, she would have to throw her sample away and watch others complete the experiment, due to the short class periods and limited materials. In this course, “If we contaminated a sample, Susan would make us start over again from the beginning, just like we’d have to do if we were in a real lab.” While some students might have complained about the tediousness of the scientific method, Havener appreciated having the time, resources, and equipment to do things properly and thoroughly.

Like Havener, Albert Bai, of John Bapst High School in Bangor, appreciated getting to use the advanced equipment in the biology and chemistry labs. For his research question, Bai chose to study the effects of chemicals commonly used in bug spray (specifically, DEET and picaridin) on Zebrafish embryos. Bai noted how instructors Susan and Dave taught the students how to safely handle the chemicals they were experimenting with. In a typical high school science class, students might not be given the opportunity to learn how to safely handle hazardous materials, wearing goggles, masks, and gloves under a hood that protected them from any noxious fumes. Bai enjoyed meeting new people, collecting data, and putting his hypothesis to the test.

This course was one of several Early College courses Clayton Wilson has taken through UMaine, though the first one he’s completed in-person. Currently homeschooled by his parents, Wilson’s mother noted how little they had to nudge him to do the work in this course. Clayton was so excited about everything he was learning, his mother said, that he completed all of the assignments with very little supervision.

Sadie Woodruff organized her summer jobs around the course. “She decided early on that this course is what she really wanted to prioritize this summer so we made sure her jobs fit around that,” says Alex Woodruff, Sadie’s mother.

The five-week course ended with a symposium. After an impressive round of presentations, the students and their families enjoyed a keynote address by Dr. Gayle Zydlewski, director of Maine Sea Grant. Zydlewski gave an overview of how she became interested in the sciences, noting how influential teachers and life experiences can be. A whale watch in middle school changed the trajectory of her life, for example. One of the things Zydlewski feels it’s most important for students (and grown-ups) to learn is how to move forward with uncertainty and understand how all disciplines/areas are connected. To solve big societal problems, there must be partnerships and collaborations, rather than operating in silos, Zydlewski says. Zydlewski concluded her talk with the following advice for high school students:

  • be flexible and do what fulfills you
  • build your skillset
  • know your strengths
  • find a good mentor
  • have a strong network
  • be your own best advocate

To this list, we might add:

Indeed, as Zydlewski mentioned in her speech, many of us have had an educational or cultural experience that ended up affecting the path(s) our lives have taken. Whether it’s a whale watch or a summer STEM experience, our hope is that the tuition waivers, academic, and professional development scholarships offered through the Hutchinson Center and Early College make these kinds of experiences available to more people, regardless of their financial background.

Learn more about INT 188 here and be sure to sign up for our email list.

In addition to all the good folks already mentioned above, we’d like to thank the following professionals who volunteered their time to participate in virtual interviews with INT 188 students exploring different career paths in STEM:

Carrie Enos, Pulp and Paper Foundation | Downeast Institute | Peter Cummings, MD | Torrian Green, Jackson Labs | Lee Kantar, Inland Fisheries & Wildlife | Connor Smart Baker, Newman, Noyes | Shawn St. Jean, Senior Electrical Engineer SGC

as well as Susan Therio and Dave Thomas, instructors extraordinaire!