illustration by Asako Masunouchi

Partners for the Environment

In Maryland and Virginia, every stream and park can be an outdoor classroom.

The Chesapeake Bay, stretching from northern Maryland to the Virginia coast, is North America’s largest estuary. Fed by 100,000 rivers and streams from as far away as New York and West Virginia, it is home to 3,600 species of plants and animals and has a rich ecological history. It offers endless opportunities to spark a love of science and environmental stewardship among students.

What does runoff from a new school parking lot mean for soil quality? Is there a link between algae blooms and nitrate levels in the bay? How do sunlight and water affect growth of salad greens in a school’s container garden? Students are tackling these questions and posing their own about the watershed in their backyards.

Schools around HHMI’s Montgomery County, MD, headquarters and its Janelia Farm Research Campus in Loudoun County, VA, are partnering with environment-focused nonprofits to get K-12 students and teachers outside to do research. Their goal is for students to learn about the scientific process, and to develop an appreciation for their local streams, fields, woods, and the larger watershed. The school districts and foundations receive grants from HHMI to promote environmental education among schoolchildren.

“HHMI is pleased to provide support to these organizations so that students in our area can have the opportunity to engage in inquiry-based learning,” says David Asai, HHMI’s senior director for science education.

Plugging into Existing Systems

The Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) offer expertise, onsite activities, and curriculum resources to build environmental literacy and develop a constituency for clean water among schoolchildren, teachers, and principals in districts including Loudoun and Montgomery counties.

“Because of these partnerships, we’re getting professional development for our teachers plus curriculum resources,” says Odette Scovel, instructional supervisor in science at Loudoun County Public Schools. “We’re integrating content into daily instruction. In some cases, we’re getting partners, like Audubon, in the classroom working with students.”

Kids won’t be able to get away from [research]. I want them to get their hands dirty; get confused by the data; struggle.

Odette Scovel

Their efforts appear to be paying off. After participating in CBF field studies, students show gains in ability to articulate critical environmental issues as well as environmental stewardship and engagement, according to Tom Ackerman, CBF’s director of teacher training. Teachers who went through the CBF training in 2012–2013 gained significant confidence in their ability to teach about the watershed, he says, and their intentions to get their students outside for research projects spiked. 

Ideally, students would have multiple opportunities to visit the Chesapeake or streams closer to home to collect specimens, tally bacteria and macroinvertebrates, or test the chemical levels in the water. But in reality, very few classes manage to make more than one trip per year, if that.

To meet this challenge, several groups, including CBF, are beginning to take advantage of shared databases and geographic information system, or GIS, technology. This way, a class can visit once and input its data into a master database, and then have continuing access to a more robust data set than they could maintain themselves. Students can measure stream health over time, for instance, by measuring levels of Escherichia coli in a stream at 3:00 p.m. on March 5 and then comparing their data to measurements taken by other groups on different afternoons.

CBF connects schools with National Geographic’s FieldScope, a web-based interactive mapping tool, to monitor watershed health. Ackerman says he would like to see more classes participate in site visits and data input, to build a larger data set.

“These are great examples of how students can collect data that is relevant to their community,” Asai says.

From the Top

GreenKids is a two-year ANS program that is free to Montgomery and Loudoun County elementary, middle, and high schools. A GreenKids naturalist visits classrooms multiple times, and provides funding for container gardens, ANS field trips, and teacher training. The kids—28,000 since the program began in 2005—learn how to plant school gardens, compost waste, save energy, recycle in the classroom, and monitor stream water quality. Students also perform student service learning by removing litter and invasive plants.

Along with building teacher capacity and confidence, ANS and CBF work together to gain buy-in among school principals. Ackerman notes that about 70 percent of principals who attend CBF retreats report launching new environmental watershed initiatives for their students.

“It makes all the difference to have principals who ‘get it,’” says Diane Lill, GreenKids director. Principals set expectations at the school that teachers will take kids outside for science-based lessons or plan environment-focused field trips. “The entire school culture is different.”

Lill met principal Lee Derby, from Cedar Grove Elementary, in Germantown, MD, on CBF’s boat, the skipjack Stanley Norman. “He personally cares so much about the environment and getting kids outside,” she says. “He understands the importance for [student] development.” Derby invited GreenKids to run a training workshop for all staff—teachers, administrators, specialists, and support staff. Everyone went outside, evaluated the schoolyard, walked to a nearby stream, and brainstormed ideas for getting kids out to explore nature.

“This only happens if the principal makes it happen,” Lill says. “It can sometimes be hard for us to get even 10 minutes at a staff meeting.” Cedar Grove was one of two GreenKids schools to win a 2013 National Green Ribbon Schools Award from the U.S. Department of Education for “offering environmental education to boost academic achievement and community engagement.”

Montgomery County educators expect to see a boost in state support now that Maryland has become one of five states to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a new set of voluntary K-12 standards that emphasize hands-on learning and critical examination of scientific evidence.

Scovel doesn’t expect Virginia to rush to adopt the NGSS, but Loudoun County isn’t waiting to include research in the curriculum. “Kids won’t be able to get away from it,” she says. She wants students to understand how science works and get beyond what she calls paint-by-number science fair research. “I want them to get their hands dirty; get confused by the data; struggle.”