No one in New Bedford Public Schools today has taught longer than Simone Bourgeois. In 1969, she started teaching sixth grade at the Parker School, and the following summer she began instructing at an upstart summer program called Sea Lab.

“I’ve been going to school for the last 70 years,” Bourgeois says. “Chronologically, I’m old as dirt. But in my mind I’m 17.”

Bourgeois has served as the director of Sea Lab since 1999, when the district asked her to build a year-round program that could offer an immersive and interactive science curriculum to all New Bedford students. The summer program, which was available to children from surrounding towns, routinely put students on track to pursue the sciences in college. 

Today, Sea Lab might be the only program of its kind in the world, administrators say. Undersea robots, papier mache octopuses, and tanks of turtles and other aquatic life line the hallways, each representing a student project. Among the disciplines available are marine science, coding, zoology, and seismology.

In a district where the state classifies nearly 90% of students as “High Needs” and more than 80% as “Low-Income,” it’s unusual to see extra resources diverted to non-traditional programs. But Sea Lab’s budget is less than a half-percent of the total district spending. Behind some of the student projects are banners that explain how this is possible.

“We are involved with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mass Maritime Academy, the Environmental Police, Buzzards Bay Coalition, Community Boating,” Bourgeois says before stopping to catch her breath.

“Don’t forget NOAA,” yells Donna Kirby-Blanchette, a retired New Bedford teacher and Sea Lab Instructor who still likes to work half days, splitting an office with Bourgeois.

These partnerships also inform the Sea Lab staff of how unique their program is. When scientists from Sweden and Germany came to visit (helping students study microscopic marine life in New Bedford’s harbor), they hadn’t seen anything like it either.

In the last week of Sea Lab’s school-year programming, Candida Desjardins was overseeing a lesson run by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. Fourth-graders were learning the basics of coding as they instructed a robot to knock down miniature bowling pins.

“The Navy is interested in education to get the word out about what we do,” said Desjardins, who has partnered with Sea Lab for almost 15 years. “And we want to reach kids who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise.” This year, Desjardins also worked with a team of students from New Bedford High to build a robot for a regional competition.

Down the hall, educators from Mystic Aquarium coached students as they interacted with live animals in small plastic tubs. Elsewhere, Sea Lab teachers were conducting a field trip to Cuttyhunk, where students would complete field tests on water salinity, visit nesting sites of migratory birds, and more.

Kirby-Blanchette credits Bourgeois for constantly seeking out the grants, volunteers, and partnerships that have helped Sea Lab thrive. She notes that in districts where math and reading scores are low, including in New Bedford, science instruction is often cut to focus on more heavily tested areas.

“Many teachers do teach science through [their lessons in] language arts,” says Bourgeois. “So, for example, if we find that there is a lacking in physical science, we’ll do magnetism and electricity with the fifth-graders.” Bourgeois says she also hopes to expand the Sea Lab offerings for third-graders, which she believes will support science gains down the line.

Having taught in or led Sea Lab during each of the last six decades, Bourgeois has seen it change with the times. When she started, “it wasn’t a large program, and it was for boys only.” In the more in-depth summer program, there’s been an increased focus on equity — making sure any student can attend no matter their socio-economic background.

As for Bourgeois herself, she dispelled a rumor that her retirement is imminent. 

“I wish I could spend another 50 years teaching and being part of the New Bedford Public School system,” she reports. 

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@newbedfordlight.org.

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