The fifth graders stood atop the high bank of Willis Run, barely 10 feet wide, as it poured out of Kiwanis Lake — actually a large concrete-lined pond in the middle of York, PA.

A storm drainpipe stuck out of an adjacent bridge abutment, waiting for the next rainfall to add to the stream’s flow.

The fact that Willis Run was far from pristine hardly mattered to the students from nearby Ferguson Elementary School, who chanted their most pressing question:

“Are we going to get into the water?”

“We are!” replied Toby Liss, of Audubon Pennsylvania.

“Yay!” the excited students yelled back.

Liss doled out some last-minute instructions about how to look for stream insects and crayfish, including the proper technique for turning over rocks, as the students grabbed their nets.

Then it was down the bank and into the stream, the payoff for lessons over the previous months about streams and their natural systems.

The Ferguson Elementary students illustrate a goal set in the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement that called for each student in the region to graduate “with the knowledge and skills to act responsibly to protect and restore their local watershed.”

To help meet that goal of developing environmental literacy, the agreement calls for each student to have a “meaningful watershed educational experience” at least once each in elementary, middle and high school, if funding is available.

That’s an increase from the previous agreement, which called for only a single outdoor experience.

Multiple exposures are “what the research shows is really important,” said Shannon Sprague, environmental literacy manager with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office. “Building upon it through their education tenure is very important. Those one-time experiences are not as indicative in changing stewardship behavior as multiple experiences.”

Still, that’s a challenge. The Bay Program’s new management strategy written to achieve the goal acknowledges the difficulty of the task, as education priorities are set by about 600 different school districts across the watershed. And environmental education can mesh with priorities set by recent national educational reform efforts, it is not a required element.

Further, funding is an ongoing issue. The largest single source of funding has been NOAA’s Bay Watershed Education and Training, or BWET, program. That program typically receives about $2.5 million a year to support programs across the entire watershed, but its funding has always been tenuous.

“We are creating model programs,” Sprague said. “We are not going to be able to fund everything.”

Audubon Pennsylvania has been developing one of those models with the Carlisle and York school districts for several years, taking about 1,000 students into the field annually with the support of BWET and others.

Amy Weidensaul, director of Community Conservation & Education with Audubon Pennsylvania, said the schools were chosen based on support both from individual teachers, who are expected to incorporate the themes into their teaching, as well as from school and district administrators. Audubon doesn’t want to put effort into building a program for the district only to have it “fizzle out” after a year or so, she said.

In addition, Audubon is working to build a volunteer corps to help with the program and field trip to help keep program costs low.

The trip into the field — and stream — was the culmination of a program that began months earlier, as Audubon staffers made multiple visits during the school year, with lessons about water quality, habitats and ecosystems.

Using Google Maps and Google Earth, students learned about watersheds, and how nearby Willis Run connected downstream to Codorus Creek, which drains into the Susquehanna River which, in turn, empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

They taught the students how to use binoculars and nets, how to test water quality, and how the types of stream dwellers they find can indicate the health of the stream. The students learn how actions on the land affect water quality, and how things like stream buffers can mitigate some impacts.

On the visit to Kiwanis Lake and Willis Run, they got hands-on experience about how they can make a difference in restoration by removing nonnative plant species.

And they learned how to assess the suitability of the surrounding park land as bird habitat. Kiwanis Lake has the added attraction of hosting the nesting populations of two bird species listed as endangered in the state — black-crowned night herons and great egrets — even though it is in the middle of a city.

“We use it as a chance to build neighborhood pride that these birds have chosen this neighborhood to raise their young,” Weidensaul said.

But for many, the chance to wade in the stream — net in hand — appeared to be the high point of the day.

“Here’s a frog!”

“Look at the size of this crayfish!”

It was an eye-opening experience — and one that could put them on a lifetime path of stewardship.

“Many of the kids ask if they can come back on their own,” Weidensaul said. “In York, they had never been in a stream. They never even thought of that as a potential area to explore or play on their own.

“As they leave, many of them say, ‘I am going to come back with my parents tomorrow.’ ”