01 Sep 2016

Offshore Learning

For some Boston Public School students, science class is a 20-minute ferry ride away.
by Deborah Blagg


Photography by Neal Hamberg

If your middle-school science class is studying New England’s green crab population, chances are you’ll get a lot more excited about the origin, life cycle, and environmental impact of this remarkable invasive species if the lesson plan includes a trip to an island where you can catch and hold one of the briny little creatures in your own two hands.

As president and CEO of the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center in Boston, Arthur Pearson (MBA 1991) is working with Boston Public Schools to make that kind of field-based learning opportunity happen for a growing number of students from high-poverty neighborhoods. “Our core mission is to help close the STEM achievement gap among students of diverse backgrounds in Boston,” Pearson explained in a traveling conversation this summer that began on Thompson Island and continued during a 20-minute ferry ride back to the mainland. “Our classroom is a 204-acre island with two salt marshes, a fresh water marsh, an inner tidal zone, meadows, and forests.”

Since 2005, Pearson has spearheaded an $8.3 million capital campaign to fund infrastructure upgrades in the nonprofit’s dormitories, laboratory, instructional space, dining hall, and challenge courses. The funding will also support the expansion of the organization’s programs, which include science education, character development, and summer learning opportunities that touch the lives of 6,500 adolescents annually.

A key initiative is Connections, a multiyear, experiential learning program for urban middle schoolers. “We’re building partnerships with Boston public schools to bring students in grades five through eight out to the island for hands-on science education,” said Pearson, who was honored in 2015 by Boston’s Barr Foundation for his outstanding contribution to the community and potential to drive change for years to come.

When fully implemented, Connections will allow 2,600 students from eight to 10 schools to participate in a sequential, four-year curriculum of island-based learning modules that satisfy state science standards and develop leadership and ambition for a career by practicing real science in an inspiring natural environment. Evaluations to date show that students who complete Connections modules have a better grasp of academic principles; and feedback from Boston teachers indicates that the program is helping students to achieve academic and social-emotional growth.

From Hurricane Island to HBS

Pearson has been associated with Outward Bound for the better part of four decades, either as a field supervisor, program director, or trustee. “I started with the Hurricane Island program in Maine in my freshman year at Dartmouth and never looked back,” said Pearson, who was in his 30s and working as an administrator in the organization’s Baltimore office when he decided to enroll at HBS.

“I wanted to take a stab at for-profit management, if only to get a better understanding of the mindset of the trustees and board directors I worked with at Outward Bound,” he explained.

However, during a “fascinating, intellectually engaging, intense, and ultimately life-changing” two years at HBS, Pearson unexpectedly “fell in love” with the economics of deregulation, a passion that led him to a 14-year career in the New England power industry, where he played a key role in building a start-up company into a $300 million energy marketing enterprise.

Seeds of Success

When he rejoined Outward Bound full time at Thompson Island in 2005, Pearson stepped into a situation that immediately challenged the management skills and perspectives he had acquired during his extended hiatus.

Located just a mile from Boston and part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Park, Thompson Island has been committed to disadvantaged youth since 1833, when a group of Boston philanthropists established a farm school there to provide housing and practical education for orphaned and at-risk boys. Outward Bound’s influence on the island began with when it launched its first adventure learning and character development programming in the mid-1970s. The island became formally affiliated with Outward Bound USA in the late 1980s.


When Pearson arrived on the scene, Outward Bound was running an independent middle school for boys on the island as well as hosting week-long expeditions for Boston public school students and teachers, focused on confidence building, problem solving, and commitment to diversity and social justice.

“Operating 12 months a year on an island was a noble vision,” Pearson said, “but not economically viable. We knew some changes needed to be made, that the school concept had to be re-thought, and that our season should not include the coldest months of the year. But change is always difficult.”

Fortunately, noted Pearson, “Some of the seeds of our current success had already been planted.” Specifically, there had been increased emphasis on environmental education programming based in field science on the island and a concerted effort to develop the island’s appeal as a site for corporate conferences, weddings, and other income-generating events.

Also in the center’s favor were a growing push in the United States to make science education more experiential as well as a series of studies by the National Research Council that emphasized the success of programs that paired classroom learning with hands-on learning at museums, zoos, aquariums, and outdoor education centers.

“At the same time that we were developing a strategic plan that melded our character-building programs with formal, curriculum-based science,” Pearson explained, “Boston Public Schools were using a significant National Science Foundation grant to implement an ambitious inquiry-based science curriculum.”

Highest and Best Use

With that synergy as a starting point, since 2009, Thompson Island’s Connections program and the science department of Boston Public Schools have partnered closely to put Boston kids in situations where science learning comes naturally. “We’ve adapted our activities on the island to be the outdoor laboratory for Boston’s middle-school science curriculum,” explained Pearson. “We know exactly what content they’re trying to get across, grade by grade.”

While Connections is the center’s flagship program, the organization also offers a variety of programs for Boston youth and school organizations, including adventure-based programs for schools and community groups, internships for teens with career ambitions in the green job sector, and year-round professional development and corporate team-building programs.

Overseeing initiatives that range from grant- and donor-funded programs geared to underserved youth to fee-based Outward Bound expeditions and corporate and private events requires a flexible, Jack-of-all-trades managerial mindset. “Education is what we’re about, at heart,” said Pearson, “but we also operate a ferry service, cater weddings and corporate outings, and five high-ropes course installations used by many people who’ve never done anything like that before. We’ve had to cultivate expertise in a lot of seemingly unrelated activities.”

Pearson says he and his colleagues are guided always by “what is the highest and best use of this amazing resource in the service of Boston’s young people.

“I’m not sure we could have come this far in any other city,” he continued, “especially against the economic backdrop of the great recession. But city leaders, our corporate and individual donors, the National Park Service, and the schools have been tremendous in their support. Bostonians are embracing this island as a one-of-a-kind opportunity for our young people.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1991, Section B

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