If you’re a landscape architect, you probably like to read landscapes. But if you thought that reading and learning from landscapes was an activity only professionals could enjoy, you’d be mistaken. In 2011, the Maryland Department of Education introduced a statewide education program called the Maryland Environmental Literacy Curriculum, opening up enormous possibilities for kids to learn from their own outdoor environments.
The program applies primarily to students in high school, but it also involves activities for all students, PreK-12. As set forth in the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR), 13A.04.17, the State Board of Education decrees that “all students must complete a locally designed high school program of environmental literacy.” More specifically, the regulation defines the purpose of the Environmental Literacy program as follows:
…to enable students to make decisions and take actions that create and maintain an optimal relationship between themselves and the environment, and to preserve and protect the unique natural resources of Maryland, particularly those of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed.
As a landscape architect, I like the sound of this. I know that kids take field trips all the time to nature centers, parks, historic sites and, in our area, even boat trips on the Bay. These are great ways to engage students in environmental issues.
Like students, I love a good field trip, and most weekends that actually involves a trip TO our local elementary school where we walk the dog. Ours is a wonderful neighborhood shaded by mature poplars and oaks and the school is centrally located within it. It was a key reason we moved to the neighborhood in the first place and it recently received an $18 million renovation and addition.
At the ribbon cutting for that renovation, Superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, Dr. Dallas Dance, stated that this project “can be used as a model as the school system embarks on a systemic upgrade of its facilities.” As a landscape architect, I imagine that potential extending naturally to the site as well. With a stroll around the grounds, one can see a few of the features included in the project: new shade and evergreen trees; stormwater areas that are intended to capture and treat runoff from the building and immediate site; and in the parking lot, pervious paving was installed to absorb runoff before it even got to stormwater areas. These were all thoughtful, small-scale solutions with the potential to improve our local watershed, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.
I can also see the amazing opportunities these features present to nurture young minds by introducing them to the wonders of their immediate environment. The opportunities for education here are enormous. Kids could be taking soil samples to check for microorganisms, testing runoff temperature, measuring the growth of trees, counting and identifying bugs, watching for pollinators, learning the history of local plant material, identifying invasives, and so many other projects that could be created using the nature that exists right outside the schoolroom doors. And the great news is that when kids are engaged, they learn better – there’s actually research to support that.
But sadly, in the two years since project completion, these opportunities have been compromised by poor planning and neglect. The stormwater areas are overrun by weeds; the soil chemistry that should be cleaning the runoff isn’t developing; trees are quietly strangling because the rubber hoses around the trunk have not been removed, and the invasives are, well, invading.
So, what strikes me on these walks is how when you add up all of these issues, and take into account other well-intended, but poor performing landscapes in our area, the accumulated impact on the Bay is devastating – in fact, the Bay continues to get an F-rating. It’s also clear that environmental literacy could be taught right there on the school grounds.
In other words, Maryland’s Environmental Literacy program could easily be expanded, or in some ways shrunk, so that by studying environmental issues closer to home, students would benefit from both micro and macro viewpoints. In doing so, they would gain a better understanding of how the forces within their own local ecosystem impact their own watershed and the Chesapeake Bay as a whole. With such study, students would soon be able to read their local landscapes for what they are: chapters in a much larger book.