Inspiring a Love of Science: Laurie Doss, Science Department Chair

This article first appeared in the 2019 Blue & White: Celebrating 60 Years

After 30+ years of teaching at Marvelwood, Laurie Doss has a lot of stories. Between life on a boarding school campus and dozens of trips- 28 domestic field trips and 24 international trips- Laurie has shared countless experiences with students and faculty over the years.  In 1987, Laurie was hired by Toby Scott - the Director of Academics at the time - to teach science, coach, and live in a dorm, first Ronshaugen and then Calhoun in Cornwall, and finally Sterling Dorm in Kent. Her memories of the early years in Cornwall include the family-like atmosphere of the School, the School’s commitment to the community through weekly service outreach, having to dress for formal dinner (of which she was not a fan), Dean of Students Joe Neary standing at the Dining Hall entrance making sure students had socks on before they could eat breakfast, playing town pick-up softball games with Lynn and Hugh Cheney, coaching soccer with Sheila Esten, having the girls in the dorm pile into her apartment to watch television on just three channels in the pre-cable days, sneaking out of the dorm with Keisha Cleveland Baptiste ‘91, Tiki Rimany ’91, and other girls to hide in the bushes of Thurber Dorm and play wildlife calls, laughing hysterically at the boys’ reactions. It could be said that Laurie enjoys just a bit of mischief.

She also recognizes and appreciates the strong sense of community that guides that school through even the most difficult experiences. In her first year as a teacher, the School was faced with the unthinkable: the untimely death of a student, Desmond Letsie Mphenyeke ‘91, in his dorm room on Easter Sunday. The community came together to support each other and honor the life of Desmond, who had come to the United States from South Africa to escape the injustices of apartheid. Each year at Prize Day, Laurie presents the Desmond Letsie Mphenyeke award to a student or students “whose love of school and the opportunities to learn in and out of the classroom best exemplify Desmond’s spirit.” A few years later in 1989, tornados smashed through the Village of Cornwall and the Marvelwood campus, and once again, the community came together and faced terrific adversity together.

Logistical challenges have never been an obstacle for Laurie as she has ventured near and far with her students and a variety of faculty and staff chaperones. For many years, Cape Cod was a destination in the spring. On one of her first trips, Laurie enlisted the help of Cindy Kirk, who ran the kitchen on the Cornwall campus, back when the school was small enough that the food service was handled internally. Wanting the students to experience a real lobster dinner but trying to save money on the expense, they set about to cook a dozen lobsters in their room at the Wellfleet motel’s using a steaming pot they brought. , which ended up taking  four hours and left them and their room smelling like seafood for days! While Laurie is known to have inspired many future scientists, Rob Garceau ’92 was on the trip and went on to an accomplished career in the culinary arts.

Laurie is probably best known for her international trips, which she has planned, organized, prepared for, and executed every year- sometimes twice a year, for the past 21 years. Destinations have included Belize, Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon Rainforest & Machu Picchu in Peru, Guatemala, Brazil, and, of course, Panama, to which she’s led over a dozen trips. The Cocobolo Nature Reserve,  located at the narrowest stretch of Mesoamerica has become a home-away-from-home for Laurie, where she’s introduced many students to the incredible biodiversity of the area. Having accompanied her on the trip four times, it’s an understatement to say that her enthusiasm is contagious. The trip is a journey of exploration that leaves you wanting more, and everyone,  gains an understanding of the fragile and intertwined world in which we live. Perpetuating respect for our world and each other is a key tenant in what drives Laurie.

On the Panama trip, interacting with local communities and children is always a highlight and has become more than just cultural exploration. In the Embera Drua village, where Laurie is greeted as a family member by the tribe’s chief, Ivan, her favorite part is, “watching our kids and their kids interact via various activities despite the language barrier.” The Embera Drua, who migrated in the mid-1970’ from the Darien Region in northern Panama to the Chagres River to escape conflict with the  Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and to have better access to education and medical opportunities, have been able to sustain their traditional way of life through ecotourism, proudly and deliberately welcoming visitors to their tribal village to spend the day and learn about their customs. The village of La Zahina, a half-day’s walk from Cocobolo, is an entirely different story. The village is home to about 30 families who live off the grid, with very little means to support themselves. Petra is the school’s long-time teacher who works hard to get what she can for her students through a complicated state-system. Over the years,  Laurie and Petra have worked together to create programs for their students to interact with each other during our visits. Some of the memorable activities have included tie dying, bird identification and puzzle competitions. Long-term programs have included CLICK (Communities Linking Internationally to Raise Conservation Awareness in Kids) in which cameras were left with the children of La Zahina. The children, many of whom had never ventured into the nearby rainforest, were tasked with exploring their area and photo-documenting their discoveries.  

Each year since then, the children excitedly and proudly showcase their discoveries to Laurie and the Marvelwood students. Just this past year, we learned that one particular young man, Angel, had been so inspired by these experiences that he’s going to school for ecotourism to become an official Panamanian tour guide. While the village school only progresses through 6th grade, this young man made the commitment at a young age to travel far from home to pursue an education that will provide an income and enable him to share Panama’s biodiversity with others.  Panama is rich with many animal species- and the sightings are thrilling- from a jaguarundi i running across your path to a tarantula mother on her nest in your shower, but it’s the avian diversity that most intrigues Laurie: “Each year you feel as if you are going on a treasure hunt and you are never sure what type of treasure buried in the forest, stream or river that you will find next.”  And she clearly enjoys encouraging others to participate. Over the years, Marvelwood students have contributed to the discovery of 380 avian species at Cocobolo Nature Reserve, making the Reserve the 14th rated hotspot out of 100 known hotspots for avian diversity in the country of Panama. 

Having come of age at the height of forced bussing in Columbus, Ohio in the 1960s and 70s, school desegregation policies had a formative impact on Laurie: “I went to school during a time when schools in white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods were divided in half. Forced bussing was designed to integrate schools and bring equality through educational opportunities . There was a lot of resentment all around so I just tried to see people as people rather than the color of their skin and/or as individuals rather than their social clique. I got along with kids in all the different social groups, which was probably how I ended up being elected Class President.” Throughout her school years, however, Laurie did not consider herself a student, and spent her fair share of time in the principal’s office. She eventually gravitated towards athletics, which came far more easily to her. Looking back through the lens of a teacher, Laurie realized she was bored in the classroom, with little outlet for a creative and curious mind. She says that the turning point came at the tail end of high school, when her English teacher, Mrs. Bolin, ‘kicked’ Laurie out of class, not for bad behavior, but because she recognized that Laurie should be in AP/ Honors level-English: “I told her that, as my grammar sucked, she was sentencing me to an academic death sentence! Mrs. Bolin responded that my grammar would probably always “suck” but that my mind needed to be challenged. She didn’t give me a choice!” That class was one of the best academic experiences she had. Despite consistently low grades for grammar and mechanics, she earned A’s for content, and clearly remembers most of the books they read, including- Call of the Wild, White Fang, Herland, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  

The theme throughout Laurie’s career as a science teacher has been involvement with the community and the world in which we live. A commitment to conservation permeates the curriculum. Students don’t just learn about topics- they become active participants in the subject matter and often times effect change based on their work. photo: fieldwork2 It was student research, and the capture of a Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera)  that provided data to help preserve over 400 acres on Skiff Mountain from development, helped designate areas of the Marvelwood campus and surrounding Land Trust properties as a ‘Landscape-Level Important Bird Area’; subsequently, grants were secured to have student-generated signage made for the area.  When you think of what excites high school students, birds and bird banding don’t readily come to mind, yet when six Cerulean Warblers were captured in mist nets, the excitement and pride was palpable throughout campus. Over the years, Laurie’s work with local and state agencies, including the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Kent Land Trust, has gotten students and members of the Kent community of all ages involved in countless projects with tangible results.  Purple Martins, once designated ‘threatened’ in the Northwest corner of the State, have now been elevated to ‘Species of Special Concern’ thanks to efforts to increase populations. While students may work towards grades during the school year, the real mark of their engagement goes beyond the syllabus. Monitoring bird populations and migration behaviors is a year-round endeavor, and it’s not uncommon to see students and community members of all ages on weekends and in the summer months monitoring nets, recording data, maintaining Purple Martin houses and Blue Bird boxes, clearing trails, and exploring the vast array of habitats in the area. Since 2001, over 4,000 birds have been mist netted and banded in the northwest corner.. Many students have found their scientific calling at Marvelwood, including Lori Pelech ‘99 and Sean Graesser ‘08, both of whom have established successful careers in the field of conservation. 

I think, at a child's birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it
with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.

 –Eleanor Roosevelt

Going forward, the Science Department at Marvelwood will continue to set the pace for hands-on curriculum. “With the development of Next Generation Science Standards,” notes Laurie, “more and more science teachers are moving away from passive dissemination of information, and are becoming guides or conductors in helping students to discover the process and communication of science in meaningful ways which relates to real world problems.” This approach, of course, has always been the hallmark of science at Marvelwood, and has been brought to new levels under Laurie’s guidance as Department Chair for the past 20+ years. With the recent complete renovation of both Marvelwood science labs, as well as our brand new Innovation & Imaging  Lab, Marvelwood science teachers are beginning to incorporate technology in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. Having started her teaching career in the pencil and paper era (literally!), Laurie has always been an early and eager adaptor of new processes, technologies, and opportunities. This year, she’s teaching classes utilizing drones to study bats and birds: “The fact that drones can be used to study wildlife both during the day, and at night, with infrared cameras is amazing.

Drones with infrared cameras are also being used to target poachers of endangered species who normally operate under the cover of darkness!  photo: drone Advances in Bioacoustics are also very exciting; this technology is being incorporated into affordable recording units to study bird and bat populations.” Recently, Laurie participated in a five-day introductory-level Sound Analysis Workshop at the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity, part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York. Participants included scientists and researchers from organizations around the world, including the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, The Argentine Institute of Arid Zone Research, South Africa, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries,  and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada. Laurie was the only high school teacher, and is, of course, enthusiastically sharing the technology with her students. Laurie’s advice to students and teachers, regardless of age? “Never stop learning, stay curious, and try to learn at least one new skill or technology every year. As long as we stay curious, that desire to learn will never be extinguished and one’s life will be filled with contentment.”

The Board of Trustees recently named Science Lab A the Laurie K. Doss Science Lab, in recognition of her years of service to the School and the greater community, inspiring and encouraging the conservationist in all of us.