For its small size and remote windswept landscape, Penikese Island, located in Buzzards Bay, has a big impact. It’s home to the Penikese Island School, which offers immersive educational experiences that use the land as its classroom. The island’s 75 acres of grassy hills and rocky beaches serve as a critical nesting site for seabirds, and its crystal-clear waters and lush eelgrass meadows provide an important habitat for fish and shellfish.
Today, the school’s overarching goal is to get students unplugged and exploring the natural world. The island, which belongs to the commonwealth of Massachusetts, is a wildlife sanctuary for endangered terns and other seabirds. It is the perfect setting for fostering environmental literacy and stewardship, which the school does through day trips for grades 5 through 12 and weeklong STEAM summer camps for girls and gender-expansive youth that inspire the next generation of environmental stewards to value, cherish, and protect the natural world. Executive director Kimberly Ulmer says, “Our overall mission is to get the kids out of the classroom, off the darn screens, and out into nature.”
But the island’s journey to its current iteration has been circuitous. The land was hunting and fishing grounds of the Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) Nation centuries before entering the historical record, when the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold visited in 1602. It had several owners over the centuries, and was used to pasture sheep, farm, and even as a vacation home until, in early 1873, Louis Agassiz, the famous Swiss-American naturalist, opened a school for natural history, where, like today, students used nature rather than books to gain firsthand scientific knowledge. Although short-lived, some of the former students went on to establish important marine educational institutions, including the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.
From 1904 to 1921 the state of Massachusetts purchased the island to use as a leprosy hospital to isolate and treat all Massachusetts residents with what we now call Hansen’s disease. In 1973, the Penikese Island School opened, and was a private residential educational institution for troubled boys until 2011.
In 2019, the school reinvented itself, pivoting to experiential environmental education. Ulmer explains that the shift was inspired by a pilot overnight science program for 12 Martha’s Vineyard middle-school girls, spearheaded by Ulmer and Vineyard resident Kendra Buresch, who was working at the Marine Biological Laboratory at the time.
“We brought in scientists from the Vineyard and Woods Hole,” Ulmer says. “It went better than we expected, and when we debriefed with the Penikese board, I was all choked up, and said, ‘This is the most meaningful work I’ve done as an adult.’ The board turned to us and said, ‘We’re so inspired we’re going to take your idea and run with it.’” After a hiatus because of the pandemic, the board asked Ulmer in 2021 to serve as the executive director.
To date, students from the entire Falmouth sixth grade and the middle schools in every Vineyard town except Oak Bluffs have been out for one of the day trips. “It’s all about providing the kids with access. Teachers often remark that kids don’t go out on boats or go to the beach. I feel that is such a loss for our local kids, who are growing up in this beautiful coastal environment,” Ulmer shares.
The trip begins with a boat ride, then a walking tour of the island, soaking in Pekinese’s history. “They learn about the human impact on nature by seeing the old stone walls that the Mayhew family built when they were pasturing sheep, the cistern relics that were used to pump seawater by participants at the natural science school, and the cottage foundations and cemetery from the leper colony days. They get to see humans changing this one discrete island through time,” Ulmer says. Students also receive a beach intertidal ecology lesson. But, Ulmer emphasizes, “It’s less about content and more about the social-emotional learning that happens with a different adult educator being their teacher for the day, and learning to interact with one another.”
Ulmer explains that the weeklong camp program’s bottom line is “to bolster the confidence of young girls and gender-expansive youth in science, but their confidence overall, full stop. It seems that young girls and women need that confidence boost. We chose to focus on middle school because in elementary school, about 80 percent of both boys and girls enjoy science. Everyone loves inquiry and exploring. By high school, it drops dramatically for girls. We’re trying to catch them at that pivotal age. And middle school is that magical transition from childhood into adolescence.”
Over the course of the week, students work with a variety of role models, bringing in visiting female instructors — scientists and artists, from young Ph.D.s and postdocs to those at the end of their careers — to show them a variety of options and faces, hoping that they might see someone and think, if she’s a scientist, I can be one. “It’s to foster that confidence in themselves and in the sciences,” Ulmer says.
As a residential, device-free exploration program, spending the night on Penikese is particularly impactful. The school has a small “campus,” with a main building for cooking and sleeping, a schoolhouse, and a workshop. Island life is off the grid, with kerosene lamps for light in the evening, and composting toilets. Ulmer reflects, “Being phone-free and disconnecting is a whole other layer. The girls get close to each other, and remember how to interact face-to-face instead of through the phones. A lot of them remark that it was actually nice to take a break from their phones for the week.” She continues, “There’s a lot of growth in pushing the limits of your comfort zone. That’s when you build your confidence — when you go to your edge and persevere. At the end of the week, I hope they leave walking a little taller.”
For more information, visit penikese.org.