Helping Students Find Their Sea Legs: Matt Lonsdale ’08, M.A.T.'09

It was a damp fall morning in Tacoma, and Matt Lonsdale ’08, M.A.T.’09 was standing aboard a boat surrounded by the excited chatter of 30 high school students. Below deck, the powerful propellors of the 78-foot-long Charles N. Curtis, a former U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat, churned through the Puget Sound. The students were from Tacoma Public Schools’ Science and Math Institute (SAMi), and on that particular day, the Charles served as a classroom for Matt’s marine biology class.

From the mobile lab’s vantage point, the steep cliffs of Point Defiance Park, the Olympic Peninsula, and South Sound islands were apparent. These shorelines, despite their inhospitable appearance, are crucial for Washington’s salmon population, Matt explained to the students. The sediment created by the constant pounding of the waves against the rocky cliffs creates a habitat for forage fish—an important food source for local salmon. As he talked, the students worked on a survey to document the different types of sediment found on each shoreline.

Beyond basic ecological concepts, the students were learning how human behavior is threatening shorelines and salmon populations—and what they can do to help. Imagining holistic approaches, like this one, to teaching mandatory subjects is what Matt enjoys most about his job. He is supported in that endeavor by SAMi, a high school located inside Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park that requires educators to use the surrounding natural area as a teaching tool.

“We have that freedom to figure out how we help kids not only learn the material, but also learn how to be good citizens in the world,” Matt says, and he takes that mission to heart. When he first came to SAMi, he overhauled the school’s marine biology program with a more experiential, hands-on approach in mind. “It really morphed into a marine conservation-type class, as in ‘Here are some things that you need to know about the marine environment to care about how humans are impacting it.’”

Matt had always planned to go into medicine, based on his passion for working with people, but at Puget Sound, he changed his mind. After a lab session—also on a boat—with biology professor Joel Elliott at the end of his sophomore year, he realized that marine biology captured his imagination in a way that neither cell biology nor genetics ever could. And after taking an Introduction to Education course, he realized he could combine his passions for people and science as a teacher. He completed his master’s degree in teaching at Puget Sound and finally landed at SAMi five years ago. It’s the perfect fit for his contagious energy and passion.

“Anytime that I can be in a classroom working with kids and helping them learn—really helping them figure out what they’re interested in—that is my favorite part of teaching, hands down,” Matt says. A classroom on a boat just makes it better.


By Anneli Fogt
Photo by Sy Bean
Published April 30, 2019