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At the Gull Island Institute, former Harvard lecturers put a twist on liberal arts education ‘for an age of climate change’

The Institute’s alternative approach takes Penikese Island as its classroom

Justin Reynolds and Ana Isabel Keilson walked alongside a recent mowed field on Penikese Island, where they run the Gull Island Institute.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The motorboat wove through buoys on Buzzards Bay on a recent Monday morning, with Dr. Justin Reynolds at the helm and Dr. Ana Isabel Keilson perched on the prow. After about an hour, a rocky shoreline studded with terns and gulls materialized out of the heavy fog. It was Penikese Island, a remote 75-acre outcropping with a complicated history — and the site of the two former Harvard University history lecturers’ new education venture.

They call it the Gull Island Institute. It’s a nonprofit that Keilson and Reynolds co-founded with an ambitious mission: “reinventing liberal arts education for an age of climate change.”

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“A college education takes place in classrooms through reading and discussion,” Reynolds said. “But if we’re going to rise to the civic challenges that are coming down the pike, it will require ways of bringing together thought and practice.”

The Institute’s alternative approach takes Penikese Island as its classroom. Far from an idyllic college campus, the rugged island setting necessitates close encounters with nature, from picking wild raspberry leaves for tea to dodging dive-bombing black-backed gulls. Even in the classroom ― a one-room schoolhouse near the dock — the island’s history and geography are central.

During the free month-long program, students combine classroom study with manual labor and self-governance, aspects intended to give them hands-on experience with the natural world and build their civic engagement skills. It’s a fully immersive “place-based” education, guided by the philosophy that lessons grounded in the history and geography of their physical location are more tangible and therefore more impactful.

A view of the schoolhouse on Penikese, one of the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Cape Cod.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The impetus for the program came when Keilson and Reynolds, who are married, noticed that their undergraduate students at Harvard and Columbia University voiced anxiety around climate change. The professors worried that the typical liberal arts classroom, with its focus on abstract thinking and location on an insulated college campus, wasn’t designed to address students’ existential queries or teach tools for climate solutions.

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Students’ concerns also resonated with the pair on a personal level, as both are from coastal environments visibly affected by climate change: Reynolds is from Woods Hole, Keilson from coastal Maine. They also have three young children, including a newborn.

“We think a lot about the world that our children are going into,” Keilson said.

Keilson and Reynolds believed that with a few key reforms, the liberal arts could become the perfect forum for those essential discussions.

“The climate crisis does require that we all ask ourselves, ‘How do we live our lives?’ Because we have to make sacrifices or we have to make changes, all of us together,” Keilson said. “And it just seems like the liberal arts classroom is the ideal place to start thinking and debating and interrogating that.”

A teaching stint at Deep Springs College in California in 2021 introduced the pair to the three-pillared model they use, which is based on academic study, manual labor, and self-governance. They founded Gull Island Institute a year later.

The Institute’s model had its first full dry run during its inaugural June semester — or “Junemester,” as they call it — which wrapped last month. Eight undergraduates spent a month living and working together on Penikese.

A typical day began with about four hours of labor, which ranged from cooking group meals to performing grounds maintenance, such as mowing walking trails and weeding the garden. Some students also commuted to neighboring Cuttyhunk, where they filled critical labor needs by hauling up nets at an oyster farm and helping renovate the island’s new visitor center.

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A welcome sign along with a group of seagulls standing in as a welcoming committee on Penikese, Island, one of the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Cape Cod.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Afternoons were spent in a two-hour seminar class — though spirited discussions often stretched it closer to three hours — that probed the question: “What does it mean to inhabit a place well?”

The history of Penikese’s own inhabitants provided a thought-provoking jumping-off point. Once a Wampanoag fishing ground, the island was the site of a natural history school headed by Louis Agassiz in the late 19th century, a leper colony in the early 20th, a juvenile rehabilitation center for troubled boys until 2011, and most recently, a residential drug rehabilitation center.

Evenings were often spent in student-only meetings of the cohort’s self-governing body, part of the program’s effort to build their democratic citizenship skills. The simply named “student body” also functioned as a forum for mediating interpersonal conflicts, and occasionally culminated in the passage of “laws” about group norms.

Though the Junemester only lasted a month, its first graduates say the experience was transformative.

“The combination of the philosophy and the local learning worked incredibly well together, and each amplified the other,” said Sona Wink, a rising junior at Barnard College, who called the program’s design “brilliant.”

In particular, she praised the way the self-governance pillar “interlocked” with the seminar room, creating a sense of accountability that led to more engagement in the classroom.

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“There was a group ability to self-moderate and hold each other at a high standard of participation,” Wink said, adding that everyone did all the readings and contributed to class discussions. “I love my home institution, but this seminar was by far the best seminar I’ve ever taken.”

But for all the serious work and study, there was plenty of fun, too.

Part-sleepaway camp, the students stayed in twin beds or bunks on the top floor of a large wooden cabin. The “Big House,” as they called it, has a singular power strip, so entertainment was mostly off-the-grid: ping-pong, board games, or conversations over dinner at the long dining table by the window.

An early-morning fog over the island pier at Penikese, one of the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Cape Cod.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

One night, a visiting professor taught the students how to fish for tautog, a bottom-feeder native to the Cape. They caught a few and cooked them for dinner. For the summer solstice, the students planned a Mediterranean feast, complete with homemade pita bread, falafel, and ornamental flower crowns woven from wildflowers.

Leo Egger, who is going into his last semester at Yale University, said the program gave him a “deeper, more felt understanding” of the climate crisis. “It gives me a lot of hope that something like this has come to be and I really hope it continues,” he said.

The Junemester, which is funded by grants and individual donations, will continue to be free to students for the foreseeable future, Keilson and Reynolds said. Applications for next summer’s program will open on the Institute’s website mid-November and be due in January.

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Its founders are already planning ways to spread the Institute’s model across the bay. Starting as soon as this fall, they said, the Institute will begin partnerships with public and private universities that involve a kind of exchange program: Students from universities would come to Penikese for an abridged version of their core seminar, and Keilson and Reynolds would travel to their schools to “seed” similar place-based initiatives on their home turf.

They say the interest they’ve received from universities so far makes them “confident” that the Institute’s reach will continue to grow.

“I think there is a real hunger and a readiness to change the way that teaching and learning is done,” Keilson said.

Still, the Junemester will always remain the “beating heart” of the Institute, Keilson said, adding that even a handful of civic-minded and climate-conscious alumni can make a big impact.

Wink, the Barnard student, said she “has yet to grasp” all the ways the program has affected her. Still, she said, “It’s changed everything.”


Maliya Ellis can be reached at maliya.ellis@globe.com. Follow her @EllisMaliya.