Thompson Island Hands On Science image

Experience, Expectation, and Exposure              

NASA – it’s so often the go-to example of a great science career. But for a student measuring the density of water collected from Thompson Island’s salt marsh, the thought of working in space could, understandably, feel very far away.  

But in fact, there is a connection. One that starts with Thompson Island’s hands-on science education and “the Three E’s”.

What are the “Three Es”…

It’s an idea that has to do with pursuing a career in STEM and comes from an individual who made history doing just that. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to go to space, explained the concept to Ari Shapiro of NPR this way:

I think that there are really important things that we have to do with students to get them to succeed in science, to go on and stay with careers. And that includes the idea of being exposed to something. So if you know that those things exist, it makes it easier for you to get involved…Then, it’s experience. When you do hands-on science, you learn to — you learn about electricity by wiring a flashlight. And then it’s expectation. And that expectation is, we should expect our kids to succeed and to achieve. Children live up or down to our expectations. And so, I always call it the three E’s: experience, expectation and exposure.”

Jemison’s three E’s are built into Thompson Island’s hands-on science program. While on the island,  students are exposed to earth science and get the chance to experience field research as they work with educators to collect and examine insects, map and analyze erosion patterns, and measure density in three different aquatic environments. Expectations for students are high – each individual is prompted to think outside the box, ask questions, and make connections and intuitive leaps between what they are seeing and what they have learned about in the classroom.

Students see how the unique roles of each trophic level within intertidal zones help energy flow through the ecosystem. Through investigation and observation, they learn about adaptations in the world of insects and construct explanations based on evidence that describe how genetic variations of traits can increase some insects’ probability of surviving and reproducing. They express delight in each discovery they make. Outside the classroom, their ideas of what science is and what it means “to be good at science” expand to include a framework where they fit into the picture.

It is these hands-on, outdoor scientific explorations that bring us back to NASA and link Thompson Island to the International Space Station through former Needham, MA resident, Capt. Sunita Williams.   

In a 2017 interview with Julie Cohen of WickedLocal, Capt. Williams discussed her early education in Massachusetts and upcoming mission to the International Space Station. Williams recalled visiting “Thompson Island for a biology course and later dissecting octopi” while in high school.

Her advice to students fits with the values Thompson Island shares everyday: “Don’t limit yourself … try something and fail just to try it.” Speaking about her hopes for the Needham school that will be named  in her honor, Williams offered a sentiment that echoes Jemison’s recommendations, urging that students “be exposed to a variety of classes and experiences and that teachers ‘give them all the opportunities’ they can.’”

Not every student who visits Thompson Island will pursue a career in the space program but we know that the experience, exposure, and opportunities they encounter here can help prepare them for their own unique launch. Every new opportunity to engage in hands-on science offers students new options, new perspectives, and new possibilities, helping them to see themselves as participants in scientific inquiry.

Opportunities for hands-on science prepare students to grapple with the scientific issues of the world around them. By engaging students in hands-on science, Thompson Island works to ignite their curiosity and give them the confidence to pursue careers in STEM.