Taking kids out of the inner city, and putting them out on the open water, is one of the key goals of NESS – the New England Science and Sailing organization in Stonington.
President Spike Lobdell founded NESS to cure what he calls “Nature Deficit Disorder,” using hands on learning to teach self-growth, as well as science, technology, math, and engineering through sailing.
“What you need to learn is how to use a sail, how to use a jib, how to use the tiller and the rudder, and how to get up your boat, how to get the sails up and how to bring it back down,” said Joseph Salcedo, a student sailor. “When you are an inner city child from New London, and we are going to the geometry class, and they ask you to calculate the area of a triangle, sometimes those children don’t relate. But, when you are out in a boat and that triangle is your jib, somehow that’s a lot different and they learn it and it applies right back to the classroom,” explained Lobdell.
From sail positions, to the angle of the boat, to conquering the wind, nature’s classroom makes textbook subjects jump off the page and in to Long Island Sound.
“In school, they don’t really teach us about any of this. They don’t really teach us about how it reflects the real world in ways like sailing,” said Alexandra Kapell, another student sailor. Said instructor Walter Johnsen, “they are looking for all these little things and multi-tasking at such a young age and not even realizing they are multitasking.”
In five years, NESS has grown from 200 students to more than 2,700, thanks to funding from public and private foundations and donations from individuals. “You can have a person who has come up from a very underprivileged background with lack of self-confidence or a child from a broken home in the inner city - the fact that when they are out in a sailboat, none of that matters. They have to learn how to work together, get the boat back safely, communicate, learn the teamwork, learn the responsibility, and learn something about themselves that they have never done before,” explained Lobdell.
NESS is now partnering with schools from all over the state, especially those with significant populations of at-risk youth. Besides New London, NESS is exploring potential opportunities in Hartford, Norwich and New Haven.