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Maryland Schools Teach How to Be Environmental Activists : A Hike in the Woods Is Not What It Used to Be

The Washington Post

At the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, the smell of pine, maple and the Severn River envelops the rough-hewn cabins that dot the 23-acre retreat in central Anne Arundel County.

Here, young students hike in the woods, discovering which roots and berries are poisonous and which can help them survive in the wild. Others try to find the queen bee among hundreds of drones and workers encased behind glass in the trunk of a tree.

Older students sail along the Severn on the center’s 25-foot boat, stopping at designated checkpoints to test the water’s turbidity and salt, oxygen and bacteria levels. All students sleep in cabins during a trip that is part vacation, part camping, part classroom.

Learning to Be Activists

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Meanwhile, a few miles away at Broad Neck High School, students learn about the environment as a political issue. In Patricia Neidhardt’s class, for example, students play the roles of county commissioners and environmentalists in discussions about the Chesapeake Bay, whales, trees or any other endangered species.

“They have to learn a lot, how to lobby for support,” said Neidhardt, 41, who describes herself as an environmental activist.

Welcome to environmental education, 1988.

Gone are the days when the thrust of nature study was collecting leaves in a science notebook. In places such as Anne Arundel, where students grow up on the shores of the nation’s largest estuary, environmental study has taken on new importance as problems caused by pollution, acid rain and toxic waste dumping increase.

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Anne Arundel’s school system, the only one in the state to offer a 13-year environmental studies curriculum, is at the forefront of a movement to teach children not only more about what the environment is, but also the problems that are plaguing it.

Question of Ethics

“Our commitment is . . . for students to really look at environmental ethics and issues,” said Russell Heyde, the county’s outdoor education coordinator.

Teaching about the environment and its impact on society has been encouraged by the state Department of Education.

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With prodding from some legislators, state education officials have recommended that all Maryland school systems develop a program for kindergarten through 12th grade in environmental studies. They also want to improve teacher training in environmental science and to add questions about the environment to a citizenship test now required for high school graduation.

The state Board of Education is expected to vote on the recommendations next month.

The recommendations emerged from failed legislation proposed last year by state Sens. Gerald W. Winegrad (D-Anne Arundel) and Bernard C. Fowler (D-St. Mary’s), who have long decried the lack of a strong environmental education program in public schools.

“Many of our citizens, many people in policy-making . . . are environmentally illiterate,” Winegrad said. “There’s folks to this day that consider those concerned over the environment as sort of a fringe element, protesters akin to those lost in the ‘60s.”

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Making It All-Encompassing

Part of the goal, state officials said, is to incorporate environmental issues into all subjects.

For example, home economics teaching would include material on the proper way to dispose of garbage, and in social studies classes, students would analyze the sociological effects of acid rain.

“Environmental education is preparing students to make decisions and take actions to protect the environment,” said Gary Heath, the state’s environmental education specialist. “Although that is our goal, we are not there.”

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Winegrad said students need to learn about the environment as part of their civic responsibility.

“Long-range environmental decisions might not be successful if we don’t have a citizenry that can comprehend the magnitude of the problems,” Winegrad said.

If the state recommendations are approved next month, they would represent the first significant changes in environmental studies since 1984, when initiatives to save the Chesapeake Bay led to the establishment of a framework for environmental education. But many school systems still have not adopted it.

Educators have pressed for more outdoor education centers such as Arlington Echo, and similar ones in St. Marys, Montgomery, Prince Georges, Garrett, Washington and Harford counties.

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Visit Habitat

In St. Marys, all junior and middle school students visit the Elms Center for Environmental Education, a 1,000-acre habitat that features brackish pools, salt marshes and a sandy beach on the Bay.

Twelve other counties have outdoor education programs, and their students visit neighboring centers, officials said.

Those teaching believe the curriculum is moving in the right direction, but they say it is difficult to recruit students for the classes because some think the subject is akin to old-fashioned nature study. In addition, environmental science is not accepted as a required lab science for admission to some Maryland colleges. “If things went the way I wanted them to go, every high school student would have a course in environmental science,” Neidhardt said.

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Several of Neidhardt’s former and current students said the class made them aware of pollution and its effects for the first time. Jennifer Evans had never taken such a class until last year.

“It was a real eye-opener, what was going on, how the simplest thing like washing your car, and the runoff from that, can pollute the bay,” she said.


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