Forty years ago this fall, a group of school teachers arrived at the remote fishing village of Tylerton, MD, on Smith Island with their sleeping bags. Then, they put on old sneakers and walked into the nearby salt marshes.
Those teachers from Baltimore County were the first group to participate in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Smith Island education program, which was created in September 1978. Almost simultaneously, the CBF launched its Baltimore education program. Both programs are celebrating their 40th anniversaries.
The two initiatives were significant steps in a wider, national move toward experiential learning born in the 1970s. Students learn best through experience and by reflection on that experience. The idea is embedded in modern educational practice, but at the time, it was novel. The CBF played a major role in that experiment, and the Smith Island and Baltimore programs were its outdoor laboratories.
The Tylerton facility was born when the foundation bought a house from a retiring waterman and his wife. Bill Goldsborough, the first CBF manager of the program, hauled in government surplus bunk beds to accommodate 20 guests. Goldsborough and Don Baugh, another early CBF educator, also managed to add a second bathroom. The young men were desperately (and recklessly) using power tools to complete the plumbing while lying in standing water under the house just before the teachers arrived.
The original center also included a dock, a T-Craft outboard, a crab shanty, and four locally built wooden skiffs. In other words, the facility was much like any other household and holdings on Smith.
But conservative island villages can take time to adjust to newcomers, especially long-haired young men. Local watermen suspected Goldsborough was a game warden working undercover. Why else would someone use binoculars if not to spy for illegal duck hunting?
Looking back, Goldsborough recalled it was a comical twist that helped improve relations. The CBF had purchased some marshland from elders Paul and Ullie Marshall, thinking that being landowners might improve the organization’s standing. It probably provoked only more head-scratching. Who buys marshes?
But Paul Marshall introduced Goldsborough around town. Also, the children of the island immediately took to the program. Curious, they often peered through the center windows. They welcomed the new children. Gradually, the foundation and Smith Island began to get acquainted.
Since 1978, more than 93,600 students, teachers and principals have visited the Smith Island facility, usually staying several days. The education center has been expanded to include two homes.
In the same time, more than 84,100 participants have participated in the Baltimore program. Students spend a day aboard Snow Goose, a former authentic Chesapeake workboat converted into a floating classroom. Snow Goose replaced Osprey, the original craft commissioned for the Baltimore operation.
The philosophy of the programs remains true: Educate students about the Bay by immersing them in it. Give them a deep and powerful experience of place and culture. As part of that study, the participants paddle canoes, conduct experiments from the deck of a workboat, interview local residents and more. They put down their mobile devices and pick up seine nets. They explore and see awe-inspiring sights: a heron rookery on a remote island, brilliant stars in a vast dark night, a sea horse on an oyster reef.
From its earliest days, the CBF realized that saving the Bay would take decades. Educating young people to carry the mission forward in subsequent generations became a core objective. (I, for instance, got my start at the foundation as a high school student visiting the Smith Island center.)
Today, the CBF Education Department is nationally recognized. It operates 15 education programs in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. Smith Island is one of four facilities for multi-day education experiences, and Baltimore is among 11 programs for single-day experiences. A small fleet of power boats, and even one authentic skipjack, help participants get out on the water, in addition to canoes. In all, about 34,000 students, teachers and principals participate in the programs each year, learning about the Bay, its tributaries and its challenges.
The CBF is still on the cutting edge of environmental education. It took a lead role in the No Child Left Inside Coalition in 2006, pushing back against the “teach to the test” approach. It also was a leader in the successful effort to make environmental literacy a high school graduation requirement in Maryland. The organization helped implement that regulation by fostering curriculum development. Furthering that success, all of the Bay states and the District of Columbia agreed to develop a comprehensive and systemic approach to environmental literacy for all students.
The CBF’s most recent educational innovation is its Student Leadership program. It provides an opportunity for students to not only experience and understand the Bay and its issues, but to lead others in actions to restore clean water.
For example, the CBF’s Pennsylvania Student Leadership Council created an advocacy campaign to make the Eastern hellbender the official state amphibian. The campaign resulted in state legislation and an article in the Wall Street Journal.
Many of those student leaders initially were inspired to help the Bay after a field experience on Smith Island or at other CBF outdoor programs. The magic of immersion is still at work.
The opinions expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.