At the Broadneck High School home economics class cook-off, the crab-stuffed chicken in white wine sauce and the crab cakes were good, but the low-calorie crab dip in the homemade bread bowl was better.
"It had the best flavor and a good appearance - creamy, but you could see the crab in it," said judge Scott Strong, director of the culinary arts program at Anne Arundel Community College. "It made you want to go back for more."
The students in Broadneck's family and consumer science classes (which used to be called home economics) weren't just indulging a hankering for the state's signature seafood. Their cook-off was an example of how the school is bringing environmental education into the most unlikely courses.
Broadneck, in Annapolis, is part of the Bay Schools Project run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The pilot project, which lasts three years and will cost the foundation $1.5 million, aims to weave environmental and bay issues into lesson plans at nine Maryland schools.
Engaging the students
Educators say the goal is to engage students and improve their performance in class. Meanwhile, the program instills respect for the environment in a new generation.
Some of the schools in the project are far from the bay, so they focus on local issues. At Bohemia Manor Middle School in Cecil County, geometry classes are studying the design of nearby bridges.
At Broadneck, English classes travel forest paths and riverbanks. Students write "blind journals" - recording what they heard and sensed when they closed their eyes.
History students pretend they're explorers discovering America and devise plans to live off the land and waterways around the bay.
Spanish classes go outside and describe leaves, trees and other parts of nature using Spanish vocabulary words.
Family and consumer science students? They eat crabs - and they learn something, too.
Many lessons in one
Blake Foster, a Broadneck junior, said the bay once had so many oysters that they could filter all its water (by ingesting algae) in three to five days. Now that job would take three to five years, if the scant oysters remaining were able to keep up with the algae growth.
Foster's group made the crab-stuffed chicken breast topped with Swiss cheese, which narrowly lost out to the crab dip.
Part of the class assignment was to reduce the fat content of the dishes, so Foster and his friends substituted margarine for butter, reducing the fat per serving from 16 grams to 9.
The winning hot crab dip dived from 12 grams of fat per serving to 3 1/2 after the students modified the recipe by using skim milk and light cream cheese.
That was the lesson teacher Sheryl Metzger wanted her students to learn - how to eat healthfully - but she threw in some ecology, too.
With a discount from Phillips Seafood, she got 30 pounds of crab meat for $100. Besides modifying the crab recipes, the students made place mats full of facts about the bay, such as that it was made by the melting of a glacier.
"It's more work to teach using your local environment and authentic resources," said Jessica Bearman, director of the Bay Schools Project, "but most teachers have found it to be more rewarding and exciting."
"We think it's a much more engaging method of learning," she said.
The program began in the summer of 2000 with 10 days of training for scores of teachers from the nine Bay Project schools. Each school has a coordinator from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who spends one day per week at the school, helping teachers plan lessons and working with students.
In addition to Broadneck and Bohemia Manor, the schools involved are: Key School in Annapolis; Perry Hall Elementary in Baltimore County; North Bend Elementary in Harford County; Morrell Park Elementary/Middle and Northern High in Baltimore; Hollywood Elementary in St. Mary's County; and Forest Oak Middle in Montgomery County.
The Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation receives about $525,000 a year from the state for its educational programs, about $84,000 of which goes to the Bay Schools Project. The balance of the project's $1.5 million budget comes from donations and grants.
Retaining the knowledge
Chrissy Macey, a Broadneck junior, said she has a new appreciation for the bay.
"We need to pay more attention to it," she said. "We take it for granted."
Another student, junior Joey Izzo, whose group made hot crab dip, said he's now aware of the declining crab and oyster populations and the pollution that threatens the bay.
"I swim in it," he said, "so I want it to be clean."