A new voluntary education program aimed at increasing environmental literacy was introduced in Virginia on Wednesday.
The Virginia Environmental Literacy Challenge is intended to encourage educators to engage students with the natural world in new and creative ways, by highlighting those who excel in environmental literacy efforts. A series of lesson plans—from habitat construction to recycling projects—will accompany the challenge.
“We need to make sure that our students are graduating with the skills and knowledge they need to protect Virginia’s natural resources,” said Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe in a release. Governor McAuliffe signed the executive order creating the program.
In supporting the outdoor education and sustainability efforts of teachers, administrators and schools, the program will help achieve the environmental literacy goals of the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, signed last year by the Chesapeake Executive Council, the top-level leadership entity for the Chesapeake Bay Program that Governor McAuliffe now chairs.
“Environmental literacy is an important part of the Chesapeake Bay [Watershed] Agreement,” said Molly Ward, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources and Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Principals’ Staff Committee. “A systemic approach to environmental literacy will ensure that future generations are prepared to protect and conserve our natural resources.”
Forests are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay—they protect clean water and air, provide habitat to wildlife and support the region’s economy. However, since European settlement of the region in the 17th century, deforestation has taken a toll on the once thriving forests of the mid-Atlantic region. Human influences such as development and parcelization have reduced forest acreage from 95 to about 45 percent of historic coverage.
Deforestation in the Bay region may seem a problem that is too complex to tackle, but one man, dubbed the modern-day Johnny Appleseed, is proof that a little curiosity, passion and hard work can have profound effects on the environment. John Smucker, a Technology Education teacher at Northwest Middle School in Taneytown, Maryland, has become a catalyst for reforestation efforts, melding his engineering experience with restoration initiatives.
Smucker recalls the moment 10 years ago that sparked his interest in forest restoration. “It all started behind my house with a reforestation effort, but all of the trees that were planted slowly died. I didn’t like that so I did a lot of research to help [the trees] out and fell in love with the process, which led me to start dropping acorns into empty tree shelters,” said Smucker.
The moment created a ripple effect that resulted in Smucker spearheading forest restoration by organizing volunteer plantings and entering into a partnership with Mount Saint Mary’s University and the Francis Scott Key Center. Both locations provide space for Smucker to grow the thousands of trees he uses for plantings.
Smucker spends about 700 hours every year in all aspects of creating riparian buffers, like meeting with landowners, auguring the holes, organizing the volunteers and also conducting the most critical part of the process Smucker says, maintenance. Plantings are held on Saturdays during April, May and October – the most opportune months for tree survivability and comfortable outdoor temperatures for volunteers to work.
When choosing planting locations, Smucker explains, “Being a grower really is a game changer for me, because I can fully understand what the trees need to survive.” Once a site is selected, he samples the soil, observes what plant species are in the area, spends time in his greenhouses flagging all of the appropriate trees for the site and rallies his volunteer base around the planting.
When it comes to tree plantings, the name of the game is fun and education. Many of his volunteers are young people who are in a mindset to learn. Each planting is preceded with an ecology lesson highlighting the importance of riparian zones, stream shading and nutrient removal. “As a middle school teacher it is important to organize the event so it’s fun and rewarding, because if they get frustrated, they will associate that frustration with tree planting. If they associate it with fun, then the environmental stewardship will perpetuate a lot better. If it’s organized right and goes smoothly then it’s a feel-good thing, just like in the classroom,“ Smucker explained.
Smucker encourages his students to work out solutions to engineering problems with the tree plantings and challenges them to think up innovative ways to overcome obstacles. “Tree planting and technology education are really the same thing. It’s problem solving and the engineering design process. What is the problem? What is the solution? Evaluate and modify,” said Smucker.
Over the years, Smucker’s volunteer base and partner organizations have expanded to the point where he has been able to launch an organization of his own, Stream Link Education, a nonprofit that organizes and leads tree plantings with local community members, organizations and businesses. “The coolest thing I think we do is Natives for Nonprofits. We grow trees for giveaways to other organizations, which is great because budgets are really tight and donations are hugely welcome. It also helps establish partnerships, not because I want something in return but because it’s neat to make connections,” said Smucker.
Smucker aims to perpetuate choices and actions by providing people with hands on educational experiences. “If you’re excited about something and value it, then demonstrate the value, they [the volunteers] will see it. The excitement can be catching,” he said. He continued to explain that in addition to educating others and improving the environment, his enthusiasm for restoration remains strong because he is still able to grow as well, “I’m going to turn 50 in January and I’m thinking, ‘if I do this right, I’ve got my 50’s and 60’s and if I can stay healthy, I can do this for a long time.’ And that’s great. There is always something to learn.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
As students settle into their new school-year routines, it’s a good time to reflect on how their experiences in the classroom affect the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy brucemckay/Flickr
Today’s students will play a critical role in the health of tomorrow’s Chesapeake. Making sure they understand how to critically think about evolving environmental issues is essential to the long-term success of environmental protection.
While managers are making progress in addressing the issues facing the Bay, many of the remaining challenges to a healthier ecosystem rest in the hands of individuals, businesses and communities. From decisions on how to heat and cool homes to decisions on where to live, what vehicle to drive and what to plant on private properties, individual choices can have a huge impact on the Bay. This means a successful environmental protection strategy must be built on the collective wisdom of the environment’s residents, informed by targeted environmental education and starting with our youngest students.
In recent years, a clearer picture has emerged about the environmental literacy of our students. A 2008 National Environmental Literacy Assessment and related follow-up studies showed that students who attended schools with environmental education programs knew and cared more about the environment, and were more likely to take actions to protect their environment, than students who didn’t. But learning outdoors during the school day is not common in the United States.
Image courtesy vastateparkstaff/Flickr
While our society is increasingly disconnected from the natural environment—spending more time online and less time outdoors—there is good news: states are increasingly stepping up to ensure that students have the opportunity to connect with nature. The state of Maryland, for instance, has established the nation’s first graduation requirement for environmental literacy; beginning in 2015, every student that graduates from a school within the state will have participated in a program that will help him or her make more informed decisions about the environment. Several states in the region have established partnerships for children in nature, taking a comprehensive look at how they can better encourage outdoor programs for children. Even more are recognizing the efforts of their schools to become more sustainable, ensuring that more students are learning inside buildings that model sustainable behaviors.
This momentum is being echoed at the regional level. The recently signed Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement commits the six watershed states and the District of Columbia to give every student the knowledge and skills necessary to protect and restore their local watershed. The cornerstone of this goal is the Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience, or MWEE, which should occur at least once in each elementary, middle and high school. MWEEs connect standards-based classroom learning with outdoor field investigations to create a deeper understanding of the natural environment. MWEEs ask students to explore environmental issues through sustained, teacher-supported programming. But less intensive outdoor field investigations could occur more frequently—each year when possible.
The Watershed Agreement highlights the roles that state departments of education and local education agencies play in establishing expectations and guidelines for the development and implementation of MWEEs. Indeed, plans that include strategies for MWEE implementation—coupled with outreach and training opportunities for teachers and administrators—have been effective in establishing and supporting a network for environmental literacy.
To support these efforts, funding is available: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers grants through the Bay Watershed Education & Training (B-WET) Program, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust offers similar opportunities. The Chesapeake Bay Program also maintains a clearinghouse of teaching resources on Bay Backpack.
Note: A version of this article also appeared in the October 2014 edition of the Bay Journal.
Author: Shannon Sprague is the Manager for Environmental Literacy & Partnerships with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office. She is also the co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Education Workgroup.
Think of a food, any food. It could be what you had for breakfast, or something you’ve been craving. Once you have an image in your mind, imagine what that snack would look like without the existence of fruits, vegetables or grains. Would it completely disappear? Would only a portion remain? Now ask yourself, “What is the common link—the necessary life source—behind the production of our food?”
The answer lies in the simple act of pollination. It is nearly impossible to think of something within our diet that can exist without it. Pollination, or the transfer of pollen between like species of flowers by wind or wildlife, leads to the formation of healthy fruit and seeds. It is estimated that nearly one-third of all plants and plant products consumed by humans depend on bee pollination alone.
Educators at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville, Maryland, understand this fact and work to teach others about the important role that pollinators—like bees, butterflies and bats—play in our ecosystem. For the past 17 years, the center has partnered with the Anne Arundel Beekeepers Association (AABA) to provide a home for more than 80,000 honeybees each year. When needed, AABA donates bees to Arlington Echo to replenish the center’s four outdoor bee boxes and two indoor observation hives. While the outdoor apiary is used for ecological purposes—providing habitat for the bees—the observation hives are used to teach children and adults alike about insect anatomy and life cycles, pollinator survival, community roles and math.
While it started as a recreation center, Arlington Echo quickly evolved to support authentic, hands-on learning. Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center is part of Anne Arundel County Public Schools and has been for 45 years. In fact, it is visited by every fourth grader in the county. “Education facilitates change,” said Sheen Goldberg, Teacher Specialist at Arlington Echo. The volume of students they reach each year provides a valuable opportunity to plant the seed of environmental awareness in many young minds. Here, people learn to make the connection between pollinators and the food they eat.
“One of the major issues we face today… is a lack of knowledge about the environment and where things come from,” said Melanie Parker, Coordinator of Arlington Echo’s Environmental Literacy and Outdoor Education Department. “[Food] doesn’t come from the grocery store. And it’s not just our kids [who are unaware]. Sometimes, it’s parents. Sometimes, generations don’t have that connection with the land and nature. There’s not that experience or exposure. All people see is that chicken comes in a package and isn’t an animal that’s running around on the ground. There is a detachment to where our stuff comes from.”
Spreading knowledge and linking people to their natural environment is a vital part of Arlington Echo’s mission. By connecting the dots between healthy pollinators and a healthy environment, they hope to incite positive change and help pollinators overcome the challenges they face. Population growth and development have encroached on pollinator habitat; chemical contaminants harm their health; and both native and invasive pests, parasites and diseases threaten populations.
“Right now, pesticides are a really big deal. Bees are going through something that we are calling Colony Collapse Disorder because we don’t actually know what causes it,” said Heather Calabrese, Program Assistant at Arlington Echo. “There is some research that points to a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. It’s interesting how it, and many other pesticides, work. It doesn’t actually kill the animal right away. It effects the nervous system, disorienting it, [the animal] stops cleaning itself, eating, feeding other animals, and then it starves to death or dies of disease.”
Although honeybees, like those kept at Arlington Echo, are not native to North America, they are not considered invasive. Instead, they are considered an important part of our natural ecosystem, and their decline is directly linked to habitat loss. Development fragments wildlife habitat and pushes native species out. “Because of development, we lose native plant populations. If there is not enough food for our pollinators because we have built on their habitat, then we won’t have the native pollinators,” Parker explained.
Over the past 60 years, managed bee populations have declined from 6 million to 2.5 million, an alarming number that has sparked many states and organizations to offer financial and tax incentives to encourage people to keep bees.
Parker, Goldberg and Calabrese are all enthusiastic about keeping bees and claim that once you start, you can’t help but become fascinated by the social complexities of the critters. “You can put as much or as little work into maintaining the hive as you would like,” said Goldberg. “The bees are clean, hardworking and good at taking care of the hive for the most part.”
The educators at Arlington Echo stress the importance of making connections between the natural world and human health. Many of the things that harm pollinators also pose a threat to humans, water and other wildlife. “There is the developmental part of… pollinator population decline, but also the pesticide use,” Parker said. “Those pesticides end up in our waterways. You know, everything is connected. You pull one string and the rest unravels. So, even though it seems like a small piece, it is part of a bigger issue.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Environmental education is essential to restoring the Chesapeake Bay: students who learn about the nation’s largest estuary will become the next generation of citizen stewards. But without best practices in place for teaching students, training teachers or gauging the success of outdoor learning efforts, it can be hard to ensure watershed states are on the same stewardship track.
Last summer, a group of experts convened by the Chesapeake Bay Program discussed the best practices that can improve and assess environmental literacy, outlined in a report released this week.
The researchers and evaluators, supported by the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), described the essential underpinnings of environmental education and the practices that can drive positive results, from connecting students to the places they live to fostering the belief that they can improve the natural world.
Image courtesy Dave Harp
The Bay Program has formally supported environmental education for close to two decades. Its Education Workgroup recently published the Mid-Atlantic Elementary and Secondary Environmental Literacy Strategy, which sets forth a series of steps to reverse “nature deficit disorder” and equip students with the desire and skills needed to address environmental issues later in life.
The plan was written in response to the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order and calls for the engagement of students in environmental issues like energy use, automobile emissions and urban and suburban runoff. It calls for the increased access of educators to professional development. And it calls for the movement of schools toward sustainability, whether it is a building that has a net-zero environmental impact or grounds that have a positive effect on the health of students, staff and the surrounding community.
Tree stumps to step over and drum circles to join. Slate easels to draw on and animals to meet. Hollow logs to climb through and dirt to dig in.
What kid wouldn’t love it here?
Image courtesy Irvine Nature Center/Facebook
The Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills, Md., has joined a growing list of nature-inspired organizations that encourage kids to explore, respect and protect the environment. Thanks to a growing body of research that supports the benefits of unstructured play and child-nature interaction, places like the Irvine Center—with its trails, garden and outdoor classroom—are popping up all over, getting kids to play in fields and forests instead of on plastic and asphalt.
The idea? When given the chance to roam and run in natural places, kids will learn about and come to love the outdoors, becoming curious environmentalists and new stewards of our watershed.
Image courtesy Irvine Nature Center/Facebook
The Irvine Center’s exhibit hall, green building and 116 acres of woods and meadows are open to the public; the Irvine Center’s outdoor classroom is open to members and to those who participate in the organization’s programs.
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