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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