School’s out for the summer — unless you’re a teacher tasked with educating students about the Chesapeake Bay. Almost as soon as classes let out, 19 educators from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia volunteered for a weeklong summer session that would bring them up to speed on their backyard watershed.
This program, led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was one of many environmental summer sessions offered to teachers by organizations in the Chesapeake region. For this group, it entailed boating on the Anacostia and Potomac rivers during a gorgeous day, testing the water they’ve been told is so dirty and touching some of the local fish described in their textbooks.
“We all chose to come,” said Dawn Buskey of John Champe High School in Loudoun County, VA. “I teach AP environmental science, and there’s just so much to continue learning for that class.”
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, a guiding document for the Bay restoration effort, mandates that students in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia have “meaningful watershed educational experiences” before they graduate from high school. These experiences should connect classroom content to a deeper, hands-on understanding of the environment, whether through field trips to their nearest Bay tributary or testing local water quality in a science lab.
Toward that end, Maryland became the first state in the country to require students in every county to complete an environmental literacy program before graduation. But engaging students in Chesapeake Bay issues can be a tall order in places where students often don’t have a direct connection to the water.
“Out in Loudoun (County), it’s booming suburbia,” Buskey said. The students “just don’t know a lot about their natural environment, so a lot of what I do is about awareness.”
That’s one thing that Sam Woolford, Potomac River program manager for the Bay Foundation, wanted the teachers aboard the group’s research workboat, the Bea Hayman Clark, to walk away with as well.
“I know we’ve said it a million times this week, but what is the Chesapeake Bay watershed?” Woolford asked, as the teachers gathered around a laminated map of it on the boat.
“The water that drains into the Chesapeake Bay,” Buskey answered, matter of factly.
The teachers had questions of their own. Pointing at the map, Darryl Dawson of Seneca Ridge Middle School in Loudoun County, wanted to know where one of the streams in a Northeast corner of the District would eventually drain.
“That’s right where my school is,” answered Steven Fenchel, a teacher at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, MD. “That actually drains into Rock Creek Park.”
Fenchel often works with maps to generate questions from students about, for example, what the boundary lines of a watershed represent and how actions in one area would impact another.
But teachers don’t always have the tools to stay up to date on the always-changing estuary. Teacher training helps to fill that gap by highlighting recent science and taking educators into the field.
During their week with the Bay Foundation, the teachers spent time canoeing, fishing and visiting a wastewater treatment plant. These programs help the educators “to teach their students that they live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and that…they can make better choices on behalf of the Bay,” said Beth Novick, a foundation teacher mentor.
The Bay foundation launched its teacher training programs in 2004. Spokesman John Surrick said the group offers up to 30 sessions each summer, enrolling as many as 400 teachers with a program budget of about $510,000 per year.
The foundation’s training is partially funded by environmental education grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which President Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate. Bay Foundation spokesman Tom Zolper said those grants are a “relatively minor source” of funding for his group, which also benefits from partnerships and private contributions. NOAA grants have provided approximately $444,000 for Bay Foundation teacher training since 2014.
But the cuts could curtail teacher training programs led by smaller nonprofits. According to Scott Smullen, acting director of NOAA communications, the agency’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed Education Training (B-WET) program since 2002 has awarded approximately 200 grants totaling more than $33 million to organizations that run “meaningful watershed educational experiences.” In all, those programs have reached more than 20,000 teachers and a half-million students, he said.
June’s boat trip was a second for Donzella Hartwell, a teacher at Bell Multi-Cultural High School in the District, who took a similar one last summer. She turned what she learned then into a bioremediation project for ninth graders: They conducted experiments to see whether certain chemical mixes could help remove toxic contaminants from Anacostia River sediments.
Most of the teachers had a rough idea of the health of the rivers they’d be traversing that day — the Anacostia and Potomac — but not all of their assumptions were correct.
That afternoon, the boat idled at a spot near the confluence of the rivers, and the teachers began testing water quality for themselves. Some measured salinity, dissolved oxygen and turbidity while others tested for phosphates and nitrates, two major nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay.
Phosphate levels were a bit high, and the group made guesses about what might be washing off nearby surfaces that could be contributing to the problem. But, overall, this portion of the river fared well. Dissolved oxygen, turbidity and nitrate levels came in where the Bay Foundation’s chart indicated they should — and several of the teachers were surprised.
Alexis Dickerson, a foundation educator, said she gets a similar reaction from many schoolchildren who have only heard about the Bay being dirty before they board this boat for field trips.
“A lot of times, we have kids test the water and they think it will be worse than it is, but things are getting better,” she said. “These are hopeful situations.”
The teachers then enjoyed a hands-on biology class. Capt. Eric Marshall, skipper of the foundation boat, cast a net into the water to see what it might bring in — with a little heave-ho from the teachers.
They watched as the net’s contents, barely visible at first beneath thick bunches of Bay grass, were hauled aboard, emptied and sorted into several plastic bins. Marshall added oxygenators to each makeshift fish tank and placed the bins in the center of the boat for the teachers to take a closer look — and touch.
Some giggled when they touched the smooth skin of a whiskery blue catfish, which Marshall explained is not native to these waters. In fact, several of the species they reeled in were introduced to the Bay region through a combination of accidents and shortsightedness: the common carp, a goldfish, a “mystery snail” from Asia and an Asian clam. But there were also natives, such as white perch, yellow perch, striped bass and an alewife.
The diversity of fish netted that day, 16 species in all, became an object lesson on the Bay’s resiliency — and a positive anecdote for the teachers to take back to their classrooms.
“In the ’60s and ‘ 70s, this was considered a dead river,” Marshall said. Then, gesturing to the fish in front of them, he added, “It’s not anymore.”