ESSA promotes studying nature while in it

The Baltimore middle schooler had studied the Chesapeake Bay in her classroom for three weeks. Now she stood at the end of a dock overlooking a tiny tributary of the great estuary: "Huh, I thought the bay would be bigger."

Clearly, studying nature indoors has its limits. Kids need to get outside more, and now they will.


Thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the overhaul of No Child Left Behind, millions more students will be rolling up their sleeves and getting their sneakers wet, to become healthier, more successful in school and more engaged with science.

It's taken eight years for the seeds of this success to bloom. Since 2007, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes have championed the changed policy, starting by introducing the No Child Left Inside (NCLI) Act, which provided critical language used in the recent bill.

The NCLI act was supported by a coalition of 2,250 environmental groups, representing over 50,000,000 constituents. This movement capitalized on the momentum following Richard Louv's popular book "The Last Child in the Woods." The book exposed the alarming threats of "nature deficit disorder," or the negative psychological and physical effects — including obesity, loneliness, depression, attention problems and social isolation — that result from American kids spending an average of 6 hours each day in screen time, but only 4 minutes each day in unstructured outdoor play and discovery.

It's been a long journey to President Barack Obama signing the bill on Dec. 10. Now the vital work of reconnecting school children to nature can take a great leap forward. With the passing of ESSA, Congress and the president gave a good reason for kids, parents and educators to celebrate. The bill supports "well rounded" and "environmentally literate" students. Through science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) funding, the bill makes historic strides by supporting "field based" and "service learning" opportunities to connect kids with nature.

When integrated in a science curriculum, these types of experiences demonstrably improve student achievement in science. Moreover, field-based and service-learning lessons improve the health of kids and the environment, boost academic achievement and enhance understanding of the natural world.

Reflecting on 38 years of work in Chesapeake Bay environmental education, I can hardly remember a moment when I was more optimistic and enthusiastic for the future of America's children, education policy and our waterways.

One of the most powerful tools the bill provides is capacity for partnerships between scientists and educators. An example: in creeks across Delaware's First State National Historical Park, grade-schoolers assess water quality by catching and identifying aquatic insects. A pollution-tolerant mosquito larva can live most anywhere, but a dragonfly nymph or the stone-and-stick case of a caddisfly larva mean healthier waters.

In this new, closely knit partnership, The Nature Conservancy in Delaware will collaborate with the First State NHP to engage the community, inspire the next generation of citizen scientists, and use the data to inform management decisions. This is the kind of partnership and citizen-science project that will become more achievable with the new funding bill. It assigns $1 billion nationally for after-school grants programs and over $1.5 billion in education grants. Federal funds will encourage collaboration on outdoor action projects between school systems and parks, conservation organizations, government agencies, community-based groups and businesses.

The work now shifts to leveraging Every Student Succeeds to maximize its potential. It's a question groups like Upstream Alliance, my non-profit dedicated to building environmental leadership networks, will be working on. By connecting formal and informal education leaders, for instance connecting school system superintendents with nature center education directors, we can leverage each group's unique skills and resources.

One major shift I expect to see as a result of the bill will be a redirection of student time from standardized testing toward science lessons where students test their own hypotheses in the field.

Groups like Upstream Alliance, the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE), and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), here have an opportunity to develop partnerships for programs based on the scientific-method, and based out of nature's classroom. With engaging, hands-on programming we will inspire the next generation of scientists and conservationists.

The goal will be busloads of Baltimore students, wet and dirty and loving it, investigating new ecological worlds, from the smallest creeks to the vast Chesapeake into which they drain.

Don Baugh is president of Upstream Alliance; his email is