It was Dirty Finger Club Day at Linton Springs Elementary School, near Eldersburg.
Out in the vegetable garden — one of a dozen "outdoor classrooms" in the meadows, wetlands and woodlands of school's spacious grounds — Anna Letaw, a volunteer who has been the dynamo behind Linton Springs' Environmental Education Program, was giving a kindergarten class a primer on gardening.
"Oh, look what I found!" Letaw called out as she knelt. "An earthworm .... Can anybody tell me what earthworms do?"
Hands shot up. "They help get the dirty stuff out of the ground so the plants can grow," one little girl offered. .
"They eat the bad germs!" a boy added.
Letaw nodded. "The worms break down the nutrients in the soil and — you're going to love this! — their poop makes the soil healthy," she told them.
Noses wrinkled, followed by a chorus giggles and moans of disgust.
"So what are you down here for, besides playing in the dirt?" Latew asked them.
"Because we're going to plant peas!" a kid shouted.
"Yummy!" added another.
Latew, last year's Carroll County Parent Volunteer of the Year and a Maryland state finalist for the Parent Involvement Matters Award, showed them how to plant a pea by poking her finger in the dirt, dropping in a pea, then squeezing the hole shut.
The kindergartners lined up and took turns planting peas.
Some showed off their dirty forefingers — proof of membership in the Dirty Finger Club — to their classmates as they followed their teacher back inside.
"I'm always concerned that they're going to get bored, but they love it," Latew said. "They get really excited."
The Dirty Finger Club is just one facet of Linton Springs' Environmental Education Program. In addition to the vegetable garden, there is a winter garden with cold frames, a native plant garden and a designated wetlands area with a stream. A new monarch butterfly garden and a $3,000 solar garden are under construction.
"In class they talk about different kinds of habitats, and we bring them out here and show them," said Latew, who is one of several certified Master Gardeners who volunteer in the program.
"Everything Anna does down here she's found a way to tie it into the common core curriculum," added Alaina Haerbig, director of the school's gifted and talented program.
Haerbig, along with fourth grade teacher Megan Dryden, co-leads a student group called the Green Team. "We have tons of science going on down here," she said.
Like Latew, Haerbig has been a prime mover behind the program. It has not only brought a hands-on, ecology-oriented dimension to the academic programs, but has proved therapeutic for some students.
"I had a student who was at an unhealthy weight and he had some behavioral issues," she said. "So I brought him down here to the garden. He got exercise, he ate fresh, organic vegetables and he was willing to work in the garden. It changed his life."
The programs that Latew, along with Linton Springs' teachers and students have created for the monarch butterfly garden illustrate the degree of research and science involved.
Students will plant four different kinds of milkweed and conduct periodic egg and larva counts to see if the monarchs prefer any particular milkweed strain as hosts for their eggs. They have also partnered with universities in Minnesota, Kansas and Georgia to gather additional data on various aspects of the monarchs' life cycle and the diseases that threaten them. Students are also planting a nectaring garden containing plants the attract monarchs. Others are building wire butterfly sculptures to decorate the garden.
As an added benefit, vegetables raised in the school's garden are sometimes donated to local food kitchens. Students also have used the gardens for various math exercises and to compare and contrast growing methods. They will also use the solar gardens to conduct experiments with modern solar technology.
Haerbig and Latew, a Woodbine resident whose daughter is in the fifth grade at Linton Springs, trace the school's strong commitment to ecology and earth sciences back to 2001. That's when Pam Sherfey, then a teacher at the school, began initiating a wide range of eco-awareness programs, including a rain garden, wetlands restoration, bluebird boxes and recycling initiatives.
Largely as a result of Sherfey's efforts, Linton Springs Elementary earned "Green School" certification in 2007.
In 2009, an after-school program called the Green Team was launched when some of Haerbig's students came to her with their concerns about the environment, wondering what they could do to help it out.
Haerbig admits she didn't take their inquiries too seriously at first. "But I was surprised when they came back to me with a proposal for a student club," she added.
"The Green Team used to be just an after-school program," Latew added. "But the teachers and parents bought into it, and it's grown into what we have now — the Linton Environmental Education Program."
In 2012 the school's Green Team was awarded the Carroll County Environmental Advisory Board's Environmental Awareness Award in recognition of its contributions.
Students, teachers and volunteers at the school have also been resourceful in financing the environmental education program and its outdoor classrooms by securing grants from the Carroll County Education Foundation and elsewhere (based on proposals written by the students themselves). There have also organized numerous in-school fundraisers, including a penny drive that, supplemented with a matching grant from an anonymous donor, raised $1,000.
This spring, the Green Team has nearly 50 members.
"We couldn't accept all the students who applied," Latew said.
"They (the students) don't just come out here and have fun," added the Master Gardener, who often spends 40 unpaid hours a week at the school.
"What we do out here has to make all kinds of connections to their core curricula," she added. "The teachers here have really been good sports. They've also tried hard to make all this work."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun