O'Malley, Sarbanes take steps to raise new 'green' generation

The Baltimore Sun

LAUREL -- The environmental movement faces a conundrum: While scientists say the need for solutions and action to combat global warming will only become greater, the children who would be the next generation of activists are less likely to spend time playing outdoors becoming connected with nature.

At an Earth Day hearing of a House of Representatives subcommittee in the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Rep. John Sarbanes promoted plans to address the situation by improving the environmental literacy of schoolchildren.

O'Malley announced that he signed an executive order to create a coalition of public, private and nonprofit groups to develop outdoor learning experiences, and Sarbanes pushed for his No Child Left Inside Act that would direct $500 million in federal funding over five years for environmental education.

"You're inheriting one big mess," O'Malley told a group of high school students at a news conference during the event. "Our individual actions really do have a global impact."

The rare open-air hearing of the House Education and Labor subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, held on the banks of Cash Lake, focused on the House bill introduced by Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.

With schools under pressure to focus on math and reading to meet testing requirements, Sarbanes said additional funding for environmental education would help diversify what is taught. He said it would not force requirements on schools -- a common criticism of No Child Left Behind, under which schools must show student improvement in reading and math or face sanctions.

O'Malley noted that his administration has dedicated funding to build state parks into "learning laboratories," and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who also testified at the hearing, said 45 percent of students participate in outdoor environmental learning experiences each year.

Robert S. Lawrence, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, testified that because of parental safety concerns and the fact that half of the world's population lives in urban settings, children predominantly play at home and spend much of their time watching TV and playing video games. Lawrence is director of the Center for a Livable Future, which promotes policies that "protect health, the global environment and the ability to sustain life for future generations."

"Nothing is more critical to achieving this mission than the education of our children to become stewards of the environment, to develop a healthy relationship with the natural world, to stimulate their minds and bodies through physical activity," Lawrence said.

Students demonstrated some of the environmental teaching opportunities at the Patuxent refuge for the officials. Children collected bugs to determine the waterway's health; damselflies, for instance, are very sensitive to pollution. They played with terrapins, and they used high-tech equipment to determine the nutrient level of the water.

Wali Jackson Jr., a 17-year-old junior at Baltimore's Digital Harbor High School, wielded the equipment as if he had trudged the waters for years. "It's interesting, a good hands-on experience," Jackson said.

"You gotta love being out of the classroom," he added.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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