The wetlands area behind Dunloggin Middle School is already a unique learning space, but last week the outdoor classroom became even more interesting with the help of some four-legged environmental machines.
Twenty-three goats, part of the sustainable environmental initiative Eco-Goats, were hard at work Wednesday, Oct. 2 at the Ellicott City school, clearing out invasive plant species and providing a one-of-a-kind learning experience for Dunloggin students.
Watching the goats, seventh-grader Zoe Golden said she never realized science could be this fun, or this cute.
“I like watching them,” she said. “I had never heard of anything like this, and it’s a really creative way to get rid of the overwhelming invasives we were pulling out by hand back here. It’s a cool thing.”
The goats represent a real-world application of “everything the students are learning in science class, about the environment and ecology,” said Dan Blue, a seventh-grade science teacher at Dunloggin.
Blue found out about the goats when they were at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. this summer, clearing out weeds and other invasive plants in the cemetery, and Blue said he knew “this was the next big thing for Dunloggin.”
Brian Knox, president of Sustainable Resource Management, the parent company of Eco-Goats, has been working with the goats for about five years.
“The goats were kind of happy accident,” Knox said. “It was an experiment that was wildly successful.”
The goats live in Davidsonville (Knox lives on the Eastern Shore) but travel as far west as Frederick, up to Philadelphia and New Jersey, east to Delaware and south to Northern Virginia, Knox said, chomping as they go.
“If the goats like it, they will eat it,” Knox said. “They’re very broad-spectrum, and they’re not perfect for every site. You can misapply goats just like you can misapply any kind of plant control. It helps if you don’t have much you want to keep, so this site is perfect.”
The goats munch happily in a fenced-off portion of the wetland; if left overnight, Knox said, the section would “look like January. Just twigs.” But they were only there for one day, which means the rest of the invasive removal will be that much easier for the students the next time they’re in the wetland.
Blue said the seventh-graders come out to the forested area behind the school about once a week when the weather permits. Maintaining the area is the service-learning project for the more than 200 seventh-graders, and they do everything from pulling out invasive plants to planting native species. They built a series of pathways that are used by community members, and helped put up a filtering dam to purify the stream water before it goes into the Patuxent River and, in turn, the Chesapeake Bay. They’re doing more than yard work, Blue said, by taking water samples and studying specimens.
Eight years ago the land, which is owned by Howard County’s Department of Recreations and Parks, looked nothing like what it does now, Blue said.
“It was a dump,” he said. “It was overgrown and filled with trash. So we started having the kids do basically a stream clean-up.”
It’s become a “huge opportunity” for Dunloggin, said Principal Jeff Fink. The school is the only National Green Ribbon School in the county, and is certified as a Maryland Green School.
“This is great for the kids,” Fink said. “Look around at what’s happening to the environment. They need an understanding of their carbon footprint, of their impact on the environment. They understand what the world is going to be like in 20 years if they don’t step in and do something.”
Golden said she didn’t really like science before taking Blue’s class. It’s a different story now.
“The best part of the class is coming out to the wetland,” she said. “We’re learning how to keep our environment clean, and how to make sure the animals living in nature have a good home. We’re still learning, but it’s fun.”
Pam Kidwell, a reading module and gifted and talented teacher at Dunloggin, said students may not realize that goats serve a purpose outside of petting zoos.
“They don’t understand what they do other than be cute,” Kidwell said. “They serve a purpose, and the kids are learning what the animals do to help the environment.”
Like the wetlands as a whole, the goats serve a larger purpose, Blue said.
“They’re learning different ways to have a positive effect on the environment,” he said. “When these kids walk out of here after three years, they know not only how to do things that are eco-friendly, but why being eco-friendly is so important.”