The students’ disposition toward “outdoor school” started merely as excitement to be away from their desks for a couple of days – until they realized that the research they were conducting was actually pretty cool.
Every fall and spring, the Frederick County and Montgomery County Public School systems in Maryland hold “outdoor schools” to teach environmental education to middle school students in a nature setting. These outdoor classrooms are opening the eyes of thousands of sixth graders, teaching them about the creatures living in and around nearby streams, those creatures’ needs for clean water, and how to measure water quality to determine if it meets those needs. (Tagging along with a group of sixth graders to see how the program works, I have to admit that it was pretty fun getting away from my own desk for a few days too!)
Day one with the Frederick County Outdoor School entailed taking students to lowland parts of Frederick County along the Monocacy and Potomac Rivers. Never have I seen children so impressed by streamside soil and trees. How thrilling it was to see the biggest tree in Maryland and hug other huge trees to measure and compare circumferences! Students hustled to streams at each stop to test dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, nitrates, and other measurements of stream health. We spent day two in the beautiful woods of Catoctin Mountain measuring water quality in Cunningham Falls State Park’s streams. Students then compared the results they found at this pristine location and its wooded watershed to the more suburban and urban streams they tested on the first day.
The Montgomery County Outdoor School covered similar content, although the structure was a bit different. We spent each day at the Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center – a facility owned by the school district and located within Rock Creek Regional Park. Although our sessions there entailed learning in a classroom setting for a portion of the time, teachers successfully grabbed the students’ attention and really got them excited about water quality. At one point, the kids had to answer Jeopardy-style water quality questions to earn their stream monitoring test kits (or, as one teacher referred to them, “birthday presents”). This teacher hyped up the kits so much that as soon as she even mentioned, “When you open your test kits…,” every kid in the class practically dog piled onto the classroom tables to open them, not even realizing that it was not the time to test water quality yet! The kids were just as pumped about getting into the streams, turning over rocks, and wielding nets to hunt for mayflies, caddisflies, and other critters. One student shouted “This is so cool!” as she dropped a crayfish into a water-filled container to get a closer look.
Experiencing these outdoor environmental education programs in person has been helpful as I work with the League’s Clean Water Program Director to develop the new “Creek Freaks Meets Trout in the Classroom” program. The new program, which you’ll hear more about soon, will help connect 12,000 sixth graders in Frederick and Montgomery counties to their local streams and tie it in with what the students are learning in (and outside of) the classroom.
One of the greatest benefits of these types of outdoor education programs is that they create memorable moments that can mold students into lifelong outdoor stewards. Among the most memorable moments for me at the Frederick County Outdoor School was seeing excited middle-school boys taking selfies in front of the Potomac River. It was one of the final water test sites of the day, and despite the heat and their exhaustion, they peppered teachers with detailed questions about every single leaf and bug around them. These experiences can inspire students to become stewards of their watersheds and take action to improve water quality and habitat for fish and wildlife. We are looking forward to giving the students an opportunity to get an early start as watershed stewards through our “Creek Freaks Meets Trout in the Classroom” program.