As students settle into their new school-year routines, it is a good time to reflect on how their experiences affect the Chesapeake Bay.

Today’s students will play a critical role in the health of tomorrow’s Chesapeake. Making sure that they understand how to critically think about evolving environmental issues is absolutely essential to the long-term success of the protection of the Bay.

While managers are making steady progress toward identifying and tackling environmental issues facing the Bay, many of the remaining challenges to a healthier ecosystem are complex, diffuse and directly in the hands of citizens. Individual decisions on how to heat and cool homes, what automobile to drive, where to live, how to source food, and what to plant on private properties add up, resulting in huge impacts on the Chesapeake.

Community groups are also grappling with how best to address the impacts that sea level rise will bring to their homes and communities. As environmental decisions become more multifaceted and widespread—forcing individuals, businesses and communities to make hard decisions—an environmental protection restoration strategy must increasingly be built on the collective wisdom of its citizens, informed by targeted environmental education and starting with our youngest students.

A clearer picture is also emerging about the environmental literacy of our students. A 2008 National Environmental Literacy Assessment and related follow-up studies conducted in partnership with the North American Association for Environmental Education showed that students who attended schools with environmental education programs knew and cared more about the environment, and were more likely to take actions to protect their environment. But learning outdoors during the school day is not common in the United States.

In fact, our society is increasingly disconnected from the natural environment. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that children ages 8–18 spend more than 53 hours a week online or in front of electronic media, which equals an astonishing 7.5 hours each day.

Richard Louv argues in his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” that because U.S. children are spending less time outdoors, they are suffering from “nature deficit disorder.” This loss of contact with the outdoors is resulting in limited physical and emotional connection to the natural world and little desire to actively take part in protection and restoration efforts.

There is good news: States are increasingly stepping up to ensure that students have the opportunity to connect with nature. The state of Maryland has established the nation’s first graduation requirement for environmental literacy, meaning that every student that graduates from Maryland schools starting in 2015 will have participated in programs that result in the ability to make more informed decisions about the environment.

Several states in the region have established partnerships for children in nature, taking a comprehensive look at how they can better encourage outdoor programs for children.

All of the states are recognizing the efforts of their schools to become more sustainable, ensuring that more students are learning in school buildings that model sustainable behaviors.

This momentum is being echoed at the regional level. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, signed on June 16, commits the six states in the region and the District of Columbia to prepare every student with the knowledge and skills necessary to responsibly protect and restore their local watershed.

The cornerstone of this goal is the meaningful watershed educational experience, which governors have agreed should occur at a minimum, at least once in each elementary, middle and high school. These experiences seek to seamlessly connect standards-based classroom learning with outdoor field investigations to create a deeper understanding of the natural environment.

Specifically, these opportunities spur students to explore local environmental issues through sustained, teacher-supported programming that includes, but is not limited to, issue definition, outdoor field experiences, action projects and sharing student-developed synthesis and conclusions with the school and community.

In addition to these intensive experiences, the Chesapeake Bay Program recommends that less intensive outdoor field investigations occur more frequently—each year when possible.

The Watershed Agreement highlights the important roles that state departments of education and local education agencies play in establishing expectations and guidelines for the development and implementation of these experiences. At the state level, plans that include strategies for their implementation coupled with outreach and training opportunities for teachers and administrators have been effective in establishing and supporting a network for environmental literacy.

At the local education agency level, the experience should be part of the local curriculum and fully aligned with the academic standards.

Sustainable schools are recognized as an important component of the environmental literacy goal. More information on the agreement and the developing strategies related to environmental literacy for students can be found at www.chesapeakebay.net/watershedagreement.

To support these efforts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers grants to support meaningful watershed educational experiences through its Bay Watershed Education & Training (B-WET) Program. The Chesapeake Bay Trust offers similar funding opportunities. The Chesapeake Bay Program also maintains a clearinghouse of teaching resources on the Bay Backpack website, www.baybackpack.com.