Imagination Powers “Blue” Education

Summer/Fall 2023

Fostering Ocean Leaders

By Marybeth Reilly-McGreen| Photographs courtesy of the URI Graduate School of Oceanography

The six seventh graders at frank e. thompson Middle School (TMS) in Newport gathered in teacher Taylor Rock’s classroom have spent half of their school year building the tms Sea Challenger, a 5-foot-long mini boat designed to set sail across the Atlantic. Alongside the hands-on education they’re receiving, students have been exposed to related ocean science topics, such as carbon cycles, ocean currents, and phy-toplankton, taught by Ph.D. students at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO).

Asked what they’ve learned, students’ arms shoot into the air, so impatient are they to share their knowledge about water and air temperature sensors, antifouling paint, installing solar panels, and handling power tools.

This program is one example of how Rhode Island is harnessing youthful imagination and passion, from grade school to the university level, and nurturing it to grow a workforce to support the state’s blue economy, which was valued at $2.8 billion and employed more than 45,000 people in 2020.

“This isn’t a traditional science class where I’m giving notes or an assignment and they’re doing work,” Rock says. “This is enriching students’ science learn-ing in a very hands-on way. And it’s a terrific time to introduce the mini boat project because seventh grad-ers have a great mindset to learn new things; they’re playful and open.”

The students giggle discussing the naming of their craft; Orca and Fortnight were contenders. Violet Laval-lee suggested the winning name, tms Sea Challenger.

“I thought, TMS Challenger because we’re from TMS and I thought it would fit to have that somewhere in the name, and the boat is taking on the challenge of trying to sail across the ocean.”

Altogether, about 18 TMS students have participated in the building of the unmanned boat, which contains a time capsule filled with TMS swag, a key to the city of Newport, and a letter from the students translated into French, Portuguese, and Spanish by Andrea Gingras, assistant director of public engagement for GSO.


Thompson Middle School students and teacher Taylor Rock pose with the TMS Sea Challenger.

“We made sure that we did activities so that students understand the science behind oceanography as well as the boat,” Gingras says. “We’ll be collecting data as the boat travels across the ocean, so we talked about what that data means, or what it could mean, or what we can do with the data. We’ll maintain a relationship with the students as they’re tracking it.”

This is the program’s third boat; the first two were built by students in Central Falls. Those students engaged in conversations with peers at schools in the vicinity of where the boats ended up, in the U.K. and off the coast of the Azores, respectively. The TMS students are excited at the prospect of a transatlantic voyage to places far from Rhode Island shores. Student Leila Costa plans to study marine biology. “I hope whoever finds the mini boat will be encouraged to learn more about the ocean and learn to protect it more,” she says.

And while the TMS students are excited at the prospect of a transatlantic conversation with far-flung peers, they might just be more enthusiastic about the boat’s camera captURIng images of elusive ocean creatures. On their wish list: a beluga whale, dolphins, sharks—and a kraken and a mermaid.

“Only about 5% of the sea’s been explored,” says aspiring mermaid hunter Abby Hole, arms folded in an ‘I-dare-you-to-disagree-with-me’ pose. “So, that means 95% is undiscovered.”

Rock grins at his student. “So, dreams of mermaids for sure.”

URI GSO Ph.D. candidate Ali Johnson presents an oceanography lesson to students at the Thompson Middle School in Newport, R.I.

Sarah Nickford, URI GSO graduate student, confers with Violet Lavallee, a seventh grader at Thompson Middle School.

A ‘world-changing idea’

In 2017, the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce hosted an offshore wind energy symposium and invited businesses associated with the Block Island Wind Farm to talk about the industry and its workforce requirements. Those gathered learned that many of the skilled workers needed by the sector were close to retirement age.

“At that point, we focused on building WindWinRI, an offshore wind energy career pathway training system for youth and adults,” says Kristin Urbach, executive director of the chamber and WindWinRI.

In addition to creating career and vocational training and certification programs for adults, the chamber launched the nation’s only four-year offshore wind energy high school certification program. It has been implemented at high schools in the Block Island, Exeter-West Greenwich, Pawtucket, and Warwick school districts.

“Our program provides a general overview that includes engineering and environmental courses as well as experiential learning opportunities. Students receive an introduction to energy sources, marine transportation, government relations, and community programs as well,” Urbach notes. After graduating, she says, these students will have an advantage in knowledge and experience compared to their peers when entering the workforce. 

Last year, the chamber took 100 students in the certification program on a tour of the Block Island Wind Farm. And in late April, many of those students competed in WindWinRI’s Third Annual Rhode Island Regional High School Wind Turbine Competition in which they used simulation software to design, print, and test miniature turbine blades. Four Rhode Island teams qualified for the national competition in Boulder, Colorado. 

Devina Thakur travels to Ørsted’s Walney Extension wind farm in the Irish Sea.
Photograph courtesy of Devina Thakur.

The opportunity to be able to be offshore, in a wind turbine—most people can’t say they’ve experienced sunrise and sunset in the middle of the ocean on a turbine. It’s great stuff.

Exeter-West Greenwich Regional High School student Isabelle Bothun sees immediate and long-term rewards for students who enroll in the certification program.

“I’ve learned a lot about different types of wind turbines and gained a new set of problem-solving skills because there is a lot of trial and error in making wind turbines,” Bothun says. “I would recommend it to other high school students because I feel that renewable energy and wind turbines, in particular, are going to be a big part of the future.”

Urbach says that the program will soon be available to all Rhode Island high school students. Last year, the chamber received $375,000 in federal funding to create an offshore wind energy career and technical energy education program through the Rhode Island Department of Education. The effort was spearheaded by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (d-ri), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and ardent environmentalist. 

In 2019, the magazine Fast Company called WindWinRI’s high school certification program a “world-changing idea.” Urbach adds that “the skillsets students are learning are transferable to other industries. The North Kingstown Chamber is building a workforce in Rhode Island not only for offshore wind energy but for other industries as well. This is critical as every industry is struggling to find talent today.”

“I didn’t necessarily think I’d be climbing turbines”

Since high school, Devina Thakur has known she wanted a career in environmental science. She majored in environmental and natural resource economics at URI, studying green markets and sustainability, and while there obtained an Energy Fellowship, a year-long, paid internship that places students with businesses in the energy sector. Thakur worked for URI’s Cooperative Extension, planning events and a lecture series on offshore wind, natural gas, and energy efficiency. “URI and the Energy Fellows do a really great job of opening up so many opportunities. And then there’s the networking. The Energy Fellows are the same people you’re going to be connected to in your career.” 

After earning her master’s degree in environmental science and management, Thakur worked in the solar energy sector before taking a job at Ørsted, a Danish multinational power company that develops wind and solar farms as well as other types of energy facilities. The company owns the Block Island Wind Farm and has offshore wind projects in various stages of development along the East Coast.  

Thakur was recently promoted to operations manager of Ørsted’s Northeast Program, a role that has included some unusual training.

“Though I always envisioned myself in the offshore wind industry, I didn’t necessarily think I’d be climbing turbines in the middle of the ocean. But my career took this turn, and I had to get certified in sea survival to go up these turbines in the North and Irish seas.”

Yes, occasionally her work takes her to the top of those turbines, 600 feet above the ocean. And, yes, there’s a bit of swaying when you get up that high. 

“It’s a strenuous job, but it never gets old,” Thakur says with a laugh. “And I think that’s why I’m in this field. Every day is challenging. Technology’s always changing. There’s always something new to learn. But the opportunity to be able to be offshore, in a wind turbine—most people can’t say they’ve experienced sunrise and sunset in the middle of the ocean on a turbine. It’s great stuff.”


Respecting ocean resources

But the blue economy is not only about technology and turbines. 

“With the Earth’s growing population, we’re looking towards the ocean to sustain necessities like food, water and energy,” says Madeline Murphy, a recent URI Master of Environmental Science and Management (MESM) grad and Rhode Island Sea Grant Aquaculture and Fisheries MESM Fellow.

“My belief is that a coastal community’s well-being is only as strong as its coastal resources. That’s what I’ve learned from fisheries management. There’s this idea that the fishing industry is only as healthy as the fish stocks, so that’s incentive to manage those fish stocks sustainably and well.”

Her fellowship entailed looking at many uses of ocean places and resources, from commercial and recreational fishing to aquaculture and offshore wind. “How are we going to interact with all of these different types of industries that fall under the blue economy?” she asks.

“My mother’s mother, my Nonna, told me about this song, ‘U Pisci Spada,’ ‘The Swordfish.’ The song is about a female swordfish caught in the net of Sicilian fishermen. The lover of the swordfish panics and follows the net, choosing to die with the female—despite her singing out to him, ‘Swim away.’”

The song, says Murphy, “has stayed in my head for years. The story was able to distill the complexity of respecting ocean resources while also relying on them. It was one of my first lessons in respect for the ocean.”


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