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Hands-on lesson in environmental science for Marley Middle School students

Marley Middle School sixth grader Jordan Smith helps plant various aquatic plants in a tributary that lets out at Mill Creek.
Marley Middle School sixth grader Jordan Smith helps plant various aquatic plants in a tributary that lets out at Mill Creek. (Cassidy Johnson, Baltimore Sun)

Three hundred sixth-graders at Marley Middle School got their hands dirty this past week learning about erosion.

Among the lessons they learned: Science class is a lot more fun when chalkboards and textbooks are replaced by muddy bogs and knee-deep water.

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"I've been really wanting to help out Earth, because I know if we don't help it, it can go bad. … Plus, it's fun to get dirty, too," said Taylor Hoch.

Over the course of three days at the Haskell Drive Outfall Retrofit Capital Project in Arnold, each sixth-grade class spent half a day planting ferns, trees and plugs of grass that will help restore the habitat and prevent runoff that would make its way into the Chesapeake Bay. By the time the students were finished, more than 2,000 pieces of vegetation had been planted.

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"It is a lot of sweat and work, but it is worth it ... knowing you can make our environment safer and make our world a better place to live," said 12-year-old Jamylleah Owens from the muddy edge of a pool.

The students' work will help prevent stormwater pollution from running into nearby Mill Creek. The county Department of Public Works built a series of small pools last year to catch runoff from a 4-acre area around the creek, and the plants will help absorb nutrients and filter the water and keep it from washing sediment into the bay.

The sixth-graders learned about the project from instructors at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, who visited their science classes before the trip and offered impromptu lessons as the children planted.

"It's not just [the students] knowing that they're doing something vaguely good for the environment, they know specifically what they're doing and how it's helping, which is important," said Eoin O'Neill, an outdoor educator with the center.

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Each year, sixth-graders at 19 county middle schools receive hands-on lessons from Arlington Echo's student outreach program in conjunction with the Department of Public Works. Some improve stormwater protections, as the Marley Middle students did; others plant forest buffers or work with oysters. Four years ago, the outreach program expanded to first-graders, who learn about butterfly gardens planted at their schools.

"The whole idea of environmental literacy is getting every kid outside at every grade level every year, so we do as much as we can with our staff," O'Neill said.

Sixth-grade science teacher Kristi Rupard said environmental lessons are incorporated into the curriculum throughout the school year, and the stormwater project gives the students a valuable point of reference.

"Since we learn so much about the Chesapeake Bay and the environment, this just makes it hands-on for them. It makes the learning real and relevant," Rupard said.

As he helped students plant ferns along the banks of the pools, outdoor education intern Shawn Siegert, who visited Arlington Echo when he was a young student, said such experiences can help kids discover interests they never knew they had.

"It's just important to get the kids out here. Some are petrified of dirt, and then by the time they leave they're covered in dirt and they're showing off, so it's something special in this digital electronic age we live in — it's still fun to come outside and catch frogs."

As her dirt-smeared students dug holes and waded into the ponds to plant water lilies, Rupard said the experience taught them a science lesson they won't soon forget.

"It's amazing. This is the second year we got to do it, and I know the kids from last year still talk about it this year when I see them," Rupard said. "They want to know how their trees are doing."

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