The phrase of the day was "invasive plants," defined as species that take over an area outside their natural environments at the expense of native plants.

Students from three Howard County middle schools have already learned enough about invasive plants to know they've become a problem along the central stream at Howard Community College.


Last month, about 100 students from three county middle schools began clearing invasive plants from the HCC stream as part of a state-funded restoration project.

By the time the project is completed next month, some 400 students from Bonnie Branch, Clarksville and Patapsco middle schools will have joined local landscapers, engineers and community college officials in the school's response to Gov. Martin O'Malley's Stream Restoration Challenge.

The state-sponsored initiative offers students classroom instruction about hydrology, plant species and water retention, then gives opportunities for hands-on activities at a nearby stream. The initiative targets local jurisdictions that aim to improve the quality of the water that ultimately flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

In addition to instruction offered by HCC officials, the students were led by young adults from the county's Restoring the Environment And Developing Youth program, which provides young adults jobs building rain gardens and conservation landscapes in the county.

When completed, the project on the college campus is expected to improve the water quality of the stream and provide better habitat for wildlife. Engineers are also reconfiguring some of the stream to decrease runoff and improve its ability to handle stormwater.

At the kickoff event Nov. 22, students lined up along the central stream for tasks that included digging, weeding and mulching. Some complained that the orange gardening gloves clashed with their carefully chosen school attire, while the prickly nature of the invasive plants was also a thorny issue.

But students said they relished the chance to take what they had learned in the classroom into the great outdoors.

"I learned that it's important for invasive species to be taken out, so that the native plants can spread. Invasive plants don't live very well with native plants," said Clarksville Middle School sixth-grader Kacie Goldberg.

"So many plants are invasive species," said seventh-grader Jessica Strongin, also of Clarksville Middle. "It's a really small campus, so it's kind of hard to imagine that there are all of these plants [affecting] the area. "

Robert Marietta, sustainability and safety manager at the college, spoke to students about how stormwater from various nearby locales, including The Mall in Columbia and Merriweather Post Pavilion, flows into the streams on the college property and is further affected by the invasive plants. He then helped divide the students into group stations to perform such tasks as filling wheelbarrows with mulch to spread around trees. Invasive plants, he said, would be cut up and placed onto compost piles.

"This 5-acre site … is one of the streams that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources classifies as endangered, one of the worst in the area," Marietta said. "Most of it is because of automotive runoff. The whole area in downtown Columbia is around here; everybody drives, everybody parks, and all of it comes into the streams."

Matthew Wright, principal at the Hanover, Pa., based Wright Environmental Land Services, is working with civil engineers at Howard Community College to determine ways to improve the stream.

Wright said engineers will mitigate erosion in and around the stream. The invasive plants will be cleared and engineers will increase the vegetation around the streams to act as buffers that filter the water.

"The two main goals of the project is to maximize the amount of infiltration within these buffers we're going to create and to minimize the erosion," said Wright.


Many of the students have had experience weeding, pruning and composting at home, and at Patapsco Middle School, students have identified unhealthy streams in the area and are working to improve them as well

"I hope that they learn how something so close to them and something so local has a larger impact, and the little things they can do, and the larger impact that has," said Jessica Warthen, Patapsco Middle School resource teacher, about students working on the stream project at HCC.

"They're loving it," Warthen said. "Of course complaining about the thorns, but they want to go outside and work outside. You can't always take them out during the school day because of the way it works. This is such a huge thing to be able to go outside."