In my thirty-year tenure with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's (CBF) environmental education program, I have often encountered former participants who share with me their vivid memories of CBF field experiences and the impact those experiences have had on personal and professional choices. But I rarely have the chance to relive a field experience alongside my former students in such a powerful way as I did one recent summer evening.
|CBF's education department, the largest of its kind in the nation, brings students to local waterways to learn watershed concepts, test water quality, and seine for fish. Photo by Alex MacLennan
The opportunity came about through an on-going conversation with Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, who is considering how to cost-effectively increase opportunities for students throughout the county to have age-appropriate, hands-on environmental education at every grade level. I offered to show him one example of an elementary school—like many in his district—located within blocks of a Chesapeake Bay tributary, and the kind of learning that can happen there. I even proposed to bring along four of the school's former students.
We traveled by boat into Weem's Creek, where the neighborhood boat ramp, just two blocks from West Annapolis Elementary School, provides easy access to the water. I explained that for forty years CBF has been bringing students from the school to this exact spot to learn watershed concepts, test water quality, and seine for fish. The four former students—now in their twenties—took turns sharing memories: writing their names on ping pong balls and dropping them in the storm drain to see where they entered the creek, catching fish and grass shrimp, being excited and amazed by what they could find in their own backyard.
In our efforts to work with Bay-area school systems to provide students with the kind of experiences and knowledge that will prepare them to become lifelong stewards for the Bay, we often ran into policy obstacles that prevented eager teachers and administrators from fully implementing environmental and outdoor education programs.
In 2006, CBF—realizing that systemic, long-term change for the Bay would require systemic change in federal education policy—formed the No Child Left Inside Coalition. As a result, we've amassed critical Congressional and grassroots support towards amending federal public education policy to include expanded environmental and outdoor opportunities. Perhaps more remarkable are the tremendous local benefits that we are already experiencing.
In Maryland, for example, CBF worked with the governor and other officials as they created a state-wide environmental literacy plan, which outlines programs and infrastructure that will facilitate outdoor play and learning for all children and their communities. While much of the plan will take several years to implement, the state department of education and local school systems are acting now on two key recommendations. First, the state school board voted unanimously to integrate environmental education throughout the cirriculum in every Maryland high school. Second, Dr. Maxwell is partnering with CBF to develop strategies to ensure that every student in the county participates in a meaningful outdoor environmental education experience annually.
In this way, CBF is directly helping to generate a systemic, annual approach to environmental education that provides a rich context for learning that will stay with those children for a lifetime, and prepare them to be actively involved in addressing the complex environmental and economic challenges of the 21st century.