By Caroline Knowles 

NESSThe New England Science & Sailing Foundation (NESS) is celebrating 15 years of serving the community this summer. NESS is an ocean adventure nonprofit that provides STEM-based education programs, on the water and off, for students from all walks of life.

New London students enjoy an afterschool sail in Stonington Harbor. © Caroline Knowles

NESS uses marine science, adventure sports, powerboating and sailing as platforms for inquiry-based learning, personal discovery, teaching respect and responsibility for the sea, and creating connections with the community. NESS operates year-round with families, schools, and organizations to provide high quality programs that blend an innovative curriculum with exciting aquatic activities.

NESS was created in 2002 by Spike Lobdell and members of the Stonington Harbor Yacht Club in Stonington, CT with the mission to develop sailing and educational programs that benefit the community at large. That first year, there were just 14 children, eight tiny boats, and a big dream of being inclusive of those who love or want to learn about the water.

In 2004, the organization became an independent non-profit 501(c)(3), separate from the yacht club, and adopted the SHYC Sailing Foundation name. It continued with the mission of inclusiveness as it grew to serve more and more children each year with instructional sailing programs. In 2008, a marine science program was added to expand options for getting on the water to those children not keen on sailing.

Twenty-ten saw the addition of NESS’s first full time staff member as well as its popular surfing program, which began the adventure sports program. In 2011, NESS purchased the Stonington facility it had previously been renting to secure its permanent home on the harbor. That same year, NESS was selected by US Sailing as one of the first nine community sailing centers in the country to be recognized under their new accreditation program.

In 2012, the nonprofit started to focus on its water-based programs to support education in the classroom, especially STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and changed its name to New England Science & Sailing Foundation to note the large role science education was now playing. NESS also committed to year-round operations by hiring full-time, year-round program directors and was chosen by US Sailing as one of a handful of centers around the country to help develop the that organization’s REACH lesson plans.

NESSSince NESS’s start in 2002, the student size and fleet have grown tremendously. With a fleet of 102 sailboats, 27 powerboats, 62 kayaks, and 36 windsurfers and SUPs, in 2016 NESS taught over 7,500 students ages four to adult (which amounted to over 100,000 hours of student learning).

Benny Dover Jackson Middle School students prepare for an afternoon sail.   © Mary Ann Horrigan

NESS Founder, President, and CEO Spike Lobdell explains, “There aren’t too many activities more empowering than putting kids in boats – sailing, kayaking, surfing, jumping off and snorkeling – many times digging deep to overcome fears and anxieties – then returning to shore – safe, and with a new level of confidence. Pushing students to step out of their comfort zones in a safe environment is what sets NESS apart and makes our programs so successful.”

NESS’s curriculum is deeply rooted in the research of ‘growth mindset’ where students are challenged outside the traditional classroom to foster a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment in the 21st century. While students are learning how to sail and practicing the physics of sailing, they are also learning about topics above the water like weather and climate, topics below the boat like water quality and the organisms living in it, and most importantly what makes an ocean healthy and how we impact our local ecosystems. Learning a skill in conjunction with learning about the ocean makes the experiences real for students. On or off the water, NESS’s inquiry-based, youth-centered activities put students in charge of their own learning and set them up for similar, confidence-building success. The organization’s curriculum – which is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards and Ocean Literacy Principles – combined with ocean adventure activities results in a powerful and effective learning model.

Though NESS started in Stonington, it now has eight locations across Connecticut and Rhode Island. NESS also provides in-school and destination programs for schools and groups across the region. These travelling programs bring NESS’s STEM curriculum to schools and students that may be far from the ocean. With the impressive expansion NESS has undergone the last 15 years, its very first location in Stonington remains vibrant. This location offers programs year round, including field trips, homeschool programs, and an ever-expanding summer program.

In 2012, NESS started its New London Initiative, an ocean adventure, STEM education program that uses an inquiry-based approach, immersive experiences, relevant real world examples, and hands-on STEM-based activities to achieve results. Guided by NESS’s four core values – experiential ‘hands on’ learning, personal growth, inclusiveness, and stewardship – the New London Initiative gives students access to the water and opportunities to thrive outside of the traditional classroom, gain skills necessary to be successful in education and careers, and become good stewards of their community and the environment. The New London Initiative supports and engages middle school students in that city, who participate one time per week during the academic year, rotating weekly between field and classroom expeditions. Students explore and experiment with bi-weekly topics with trans-disciplinary themes, includig: sailing to understand wind speed, direction, and power; navigation; simple machines; and kayaking through watersheds to comprehend buoyancy and watershed concepts.

Critical to the success of NESS’s New London initiative are the NESS SEA (STEM Education Ambassadors) AmeriCorps members that serve in the New London Public Schools as educators. Founded in 2014, this program uses national service to engage the students of New London in STEM-based ocean adventure learning. NESS SEA AmeriCorps Members serve to actively engage students to learn by seeing and doing, create innovative STEM curriculum, provide student support, empower students to discover their personal best, share enjoyment of the sea, and encourage students to respect and preserve their natural environment and community.

NESS’s engaging, life-changing learning positively impacts students’ lives, and the organization is quantifying its programs’ impacts with data. So far, NESS’s data collection has centered on three areas: student self-esteem and self-confidence, life skills, and stewardship. Even students who experienced just one day at NESS as part of a school field trip reported improvement. Not surprisingly, students in the more intensive year-round, weekly program reported significant improvement in all areas.

NESS“We’ve always known that NESS programs positively influence our students,” said Executive Director Cindy Nickerson. “We could tell by their spirited reactions coming off the water, their teachers’ enthusiastic comments about how engaged they were, and, in many cases, the students’ own words about how NESS changed their lives. Now, we’re starting to quantify our programs’ impact with data.”

Field trip students test the ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) that they designed and built.   © Caroline Knowles

Looking to the future, NESS plans to expand on its experiential educational model serving many more students in the region by establishing physical presences in more waterfront locations to reach underserved youth. “From our origins in 2002 we never could have predicted what the Foundation has become and the role we play in education,” said Lobdell. “I am very excited about our future!”

Caroline Knowles is the Marketing Coordinator at NESS.


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