Girls-only school focuses on marine sciences

Girls-only school focuses on marine sciences

From marine-science field trips to camping in the White Mountains and meditating by the sea, Heather Sieger will always be grateful for her experience at the Freeport-based Coastal Studies for Girls.

One thing that stood out for Sieger, she said, is the early “morning solos” – an opportunity for the students to quietly soak in nature and reflect on life in their journals.

“Every morning we would wake up, walk down to the ocean, and sit along a ridge looking out on the water in silence,” said Sieger, a high school senior from Texas who attended Coastal Studies for Girls in 2013 during the spring semester of her sophomore year. “It was a nice time for meditation and quietness in our crazy, full days. It’s hard to pick a favorite part of CSG. I have so many fond memories.”

Coastal Studies for Girls is a semester-long (16 week) science and leadership school for 10th-grade girls, located on Wolfe Neck’s Farm in Freeport, where students become immersed in a rigorous, marine science-based curriculum.

Classes are offered two semesters a year, from August-December and from February-June. During the semester, students interact directly with scientists and guest speakers in various science-related fields. Weeklong summer programming, which focuses on environmental research and leadership, is also available for middle-school girls.

According to the school’s founder and executive director, Pam Erickson, students at CSG “deep dive” into marine science and leadership learning, “which is really critical” for 15-year-old girls. The leadership aspect is important because it helps the students to “grow more strong and confident in their ability” to pursue science, as well as other STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)-related careers.”

In addition, the school offers courses to keep students up to speed with their home high schools’ requirements in mathematics, English, history, and languages.

“We have space for 15 students, and they live together for four months in a little renovated farmhouse out on Wolfe’s Neck Road,” Erickson said.

The farmhouse, built in the 1850s, includes 15 beds, but the hope, she said, is to double that amount in the future.

“The program is doing very well and applications are growing,” Erickson said. “We have not only a desire to grow, but a responsibility to spread our mission further (to) encourage young women in these really critical fields.”

Tuition for the fall 2015 and spring 2016 semesters is $22,000, and covers all academic instruction and materials, as well as room and board, guest lectures, field trips and leadership adventures.

Erickson calls Coastal Studies for Girls “a transformational experience.”

The school’s leadership and marine science-based classes go hand in hand, because “even though a young woman may have curiosity or capability in the science fields, (her) ability to connect and communicate, and be confident about that really comes through the leadership and residential life curriculum,” Erickson said.

Sieger heard about the Coastal Studies for Girls program through an old friend, Eliza Balch, who attended during the spring of 2012. Sieger plans to major in human ecology with a focus on marine biology and environmental science at the College of the Atlantic this fall, after realizing her passion for marine biology and ocean conservation during her time at Coastal Studies for Girls.

“I loved all of our trips and marine science work,” said Sieger. “Every weekend we went on a field trip and did a variety of things, from measuring estuary salinity and turbidity with the U.S. Geological Survey, to winter camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.”

Erickson said that the girls travel from other independent and public schools from across the U.S., as well as other parts of the world, to attend the school.

“We’ve had two countries represented so far – Mexico and Nepal,” since the school opened in 2010, said Erickson. “About one-third of our kids are from Maine.”

Sieger learned a lot in her classes at Coastal Studies for Girls about Maine’s history, plankton, micro plastic, literature, and even a lot about herself, she said.

“This experience was very unique and meaningful to me,” said Sieger. “We learned, lived, and played together and made friendships that will last a lifetime.”

Sieger recommends other sophomore girls attend Coastal Studies for Girls, calling the overall experience “beneficial.” Since then, Seiger has been “semester-school-hopping” with other CSG alumnae, including the Conserve School in Wisconsin and the Woolman Semester School in California where the focuses were environmental studies, peace, justice and sustainability.

She hopes to eventually return to Coastal Studies for Girls to work as a residential teacher assistant.

“It’s a great environment to learn and grow with a supportive community,” said Sieger, who aspires to become a marine researcher and educator.

“When learning about microplastic, it made me so upset to know that there is so much plastic in our oceans that is killing so many marine animals.”

Another memorable experience for Sieger was when the students took a weekend field trip to the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole and collected marine creatures from a boat, including sea cucumbers, spider crabs, sea stars and more, to examine under a microscope.

“It was so exciting to look at everything that’s on the ocean bottom in that area,” said Sieger. “This was definitely one of the moments where I thought to myself, this is what I want to study for the rest of my life.”

Sieger is optimistic about women in the STEM fields going forward.

“I think the numbers of women in science are increasing, which is great, and I hope to be one of them,” she said. “As the feminism movement picks up and continues, I think more women and girls are feeling empowered to do what they love.”

Erickson said she intentionally chose to create the school for 10th-grade girls because they are “at an age that they can delve into the academic rigor that we expect of them. It’s a very intensive kind of program,” she said.

“Our hope for them is that what they do with us sparks their thinking as a junior and senior in high school,” Erickson added, as well as “college and career and life thereafter.”

Students attend Coastal Studies for Girls “to define or redefine who they are,” said Erickson, who dreamed of creating the school since the late 1990s. The nonprofit organization formed in 2005 and the school’s opening day was Feb. 14, 2010.

According to a May 11 blog post on the Coastal Studies for Girls website, more than 85 percent of the school’s 140 alumni are pursuing a four-year college or university, and more than one-third of them are focusing on science.

Frankline Mardi, from Massachusetts, who attended in spring of 2010, would recommend the school to all sophomore girls, including those who aren’t passionate about science. Mardi is now a junior at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., where she studies history and education.

“I think even if you aren’t interested in STEM, it’s an amazing program,” said Mardi, who plans to become a teacher. “It’s a time where you really get to explore who you are.”

In addition to the Leadership Adventure course, Mardi also enjoyed listening to the guest speakers, who were women, talk about their work in the science field.

“I learned a lot,” she said. “Before I took marine science I was really afraid of marine animals because I had never interacted with them before. I gained more appreciation for them.”

But her favorite part about Coastal Studies for Girls, Mardi said, was that “you get to build your skills as a leader. You feel a lot more empowered. It’s a great way to push you to challenge yourself.”

High school senior Heather Sieger, from Texas, uses a net to collect plankton during a marine science class at Coastal Studies for Girls in Freeport, which she attended as a sophomore in 2013. Courtesy photo

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