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Educators Partnering With Non-Profit Organizations to

Help Develop Environmental Literacy

by Jane Califf

An effective way to develop the ecological consciousness of students and teachers is to partner with non-profit organizations with an environmental focus.  Their experts can hold workshops for teachers, provide field trip opportunities, and come into classrooms for presentations and activities.  Very often their websites provide lesson plans for the K-12 levels including background information for teachers, which helps to clarify the concepts and procedures. 


One such organization is the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies (CIES), a leading independent environmental research organization, based in Millbrook, N.Y.  On its 2,000-acre campus of forest, field and stream, scientists and environmental educators conduct field and laboratory research, stream monitoring for wildlife and water quality, public programs, after school clubs, summer camps, field trips, and they also develop K – 12 science curricula.  An extensive collection of detailed lesson plans are archived at their website. 


A three-year grant from the Rhinebeck Science Foundation enabled them to create an “Ecosystem Literacy Initiative” with New York’s Rhinebeck Central School District. CIES educators describe it this way:


“Our guiding principle was to think of the school as an ecosystem, which allows students to chart the inputs and outputs of energy and materials in a familiar system.  Students know they use energy, water, food and other raw materials every day, and they can see how those are transformed to wastes, such as trash and heat.  But the students are less aware of where the food, water and energy come from and where their waste goes, as well as what lives in and around the grounds of their schools.


“Through a series of meetings and workshops with Rhinebeck teachers, we identified key topics for each grade level or class and developed age-appropriate investigations that would help everyone understand their impact on the environment. For example, students in fifth grade and in high school biology classes are conducting schoolyard “Eco-Blitzes,” where they catalog all the living things they find outside.  The younger students excel at finding and identifying the insects, while the older students can work with math teachers to analyze the data. (Kids ID schools’ ecosystems by Cornelia Harris, Kim Notin, Meg McLean and Joe Phelan,


CEIS educators work directly with teachers and students in and out of the classroom.  All teachers are not involved to the same extent since some view environmental education as important while others are not as convinced.  The testing craze that affects schools all over the country has been a barrier to bringing in more environmental education at the high school level.  However, despite these problems, progress has been made.


The Rhinebeck Central School District posts the results of student research on its website:

They call it the Environmental Scorecard.  For 2009 – 2010, they had statistics under the title “Biodiversity,” where students answered the question, “What lives in our schoolyard?”  They found 100 different animal and plant species in the spring living around an elementary school and 12 different invasive plant species along the schoolyard of the middle school and high school among other discoveries. 


There are other environmental score cards for student investigations of water and energy usage at schools, waste in cafeteria and classrooms, and for food, i.e., “What are we eating?” and “Where does our food come from?”


Each set of statistics is followed by the question, “Now what?” which is answered with other questions on what could be done with this information.


As of 2011, this project was in its second year.  The hope is to build on all the data that is collected so as to gather a comprehensive picture of what each school can do to lower its carbon footprint, create less waste, recycle more and help their school grounds to become more biodiverse


At its website, the School District includes an “Eco-Initiative Webpage” where students, teachers and the public can learn more about the environmental subjects that are being studied with links to further information on each topic.


The Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES) in Maryland is another project supported by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies (CIES), which oversees funding for a BES  grant from the National Science Foundation.  The project seeks to involve local stakeholders, schools and government agencies at all levels in producing scientific analyses of the urban environmental condition in Baltimore. 


Dan Dillon is a research assistant for CIES, based at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.1 He visits specified watershed sites which are areas drained by a river or smaller streams that run into a larger river.  He takes water and soil samples, does trace gas testing to be evaluated and catalogued, and visits permanent plots of land to observe any changes taking place.  He also gives outdoor workshops to teachers, middle school, high school and college students to introduce them to the importance of monitoring Baltimore’s ecosystem for positive or negative changes and is a mentor of student interns.  (A Teacher in Residence works with him to help provide these field experiences.)


Teachers and students learn that the main sources of pollution in Baltimore rivers are pesticides and fertilizers from agricultural run-off and also from old infrastructure that has leaking sewer lines that leach into the water table and then into rivers.


Mr. Dillon says, “I am very lucky to be in a program that allows and encourages me to work with students.  This would have gotten tedious a long time ago if I did my work in a vacuum.  To me, the hardest issue to deal with in providing hands-on experiences is the logistics of getting students to our office and then out into the field.  Without the dedication of the BES education team, and the assistance of teachers and department heads of the local schools, it would not happen.”


Mr. Dillon’s work also includes mentoring a teacher who has received a fellowship from Towson University’s “Research Experiences for Teachers.”  In the summer of 2010, he mentored Kathy Kingsley, a teacher at Owens Mills High School in Baltimore.  She learned in detail the protocols for field measurements.  She later began to create a mandatory environmental course for 9th and 10th graders for the Baltimore County Public School system.  The curriculum will engage students in watershed-based science by examining environmental variables of two watersheds.


For example, one of the activities is testing stream water for its conductivity – how will it conducts electricity – and graphing the results.  Higher levels of conductivity indicate higher levels of salt, which is a direct result of winter de-icing strategies used in Baltimore as well as all over the country. 


Having students research the levels of salt in streams is an important project.  From 2003 – 2005, Mr. Dillon collaborated with Dr. Sujay Kaushal, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory, on stream research, and by accident they discovered high levels of salt in the water.  Based on this stream sampling experience and others, Dr. Sujay wrote a paper showing that the levels of salt in our streams have been steadily building and that if trends don’t change, we will see some of our streams and rivers become brackish water by 2050.  Increased salinity will push out native species and greatly affect the stream systems as a whole.


Monitoring the levels of salt in certain Baltimore streams connects students with important research, and if presented to the appropriate Baltimore authorities, can lead to the use of other ways to handle snow and ice besides using salt, thereby helping to save fresh water plants and wildlife.  In this way, students can see how scientific research has the possibility of affecting environmental policies.


Mr. Dillon’s field trips include showing the effects of littering on streams leading to the Chesapeake Bay.  “I take students and teachers to one of our stream sites, Gwynns Run.  Though the watershed is small, just 2.5 square miles, during each rain event several tons of trash are transported off of city streets, through the storm water system, into Gwynns Run and out into the bay.


He explains that there were two large storm water ponds constructed along the stream to catch rainfall overflow, but they quickly fill up with trash.  “This is only a small part of what has come downstream.  When you consider the size of the city as a whole, you realize that we are pouring our trash into the bay at a phenomenal rate.


“Not many people in the city recognize the connection between their litter and the health of the bay.  A visit to the Gwynns Run opens their eyes up fast.  Students and teachers are typically stunned by the site.


“I am very proud of the work we do to introduce science to students.  Getting them into the field takes them away from more familiar ground.  Many actually have a fear of nature, even screaming when they see a bug.  They cluster around me, tend to be attentive and appreciate what they see first hand.  I hope that many will be encouraged to become scientists and researchers based on the experience.”


Rich Foot, Teacher in Residence at the BES during the 2010 – 2011 school year, worked with Dan Dillon to help implement the goals of their developing FIELDS program  (Field Investigations and Experiences in Leadership Development for Students). 2/   The main goals are:  engage students in real world, local problems; build a sense of citizenship and responsibility; strengthen concepts through inquiry, and expand student access to field experiences.


Testimonials by students who have participated in the program show the impact it has had:


Evan Schiesser, sophomore at Kenwood High School, Baltimore County, MD:  “Volunteering with people from the BES made me start thinking differently about what water does around me.  When I walk home during a rainy day, now I pay attention to runoff water that’s going into the drains and straight to the stream.”


Greg Jackson, senior at North Carroll High School, Carroll County, MD:  “My summer internship with BES researchers motivated me to make Environmental Science my major at college next year.  I want to give back and do my part to improve our local environment.”


Dakota Smith, 2010 graduate of Century High School, Carroll County, freshman in meteorology at Penn State University:  “My experiences since last spring with the BES have helped inspire me to fix problems across State College, PA where I attend Penn State.  I am currently working with the Mayor to strengthen environmental literacy in local elementary schools.” (From the BES FIELDS Program draft brochure)


These three young men were also inspired by working with Mr. Foot in Foot’s Forecast – a multi-state collaborative network of local forecasters in high school, college and the workforce created in 2004 by Mr. Foot and his 10th grade students at Dundalk High School in the Baltimore County Public Schools. He saw it as a way to encourage students to become interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math, as well as a chance to learn collaboration with others, team building, leadership and writing skills.


This project began as an after-school program in which students were taught about weather reporting.  Over time, Mr. Foot linked his students with college students and professionals with meteorological and environmental expertise.  They set up a website,, where they posted weather reports for Maryland, particularly for their county.  The idea was to give detailed weather information on a daily basis about their own locality to make it more helpful and extensive than traditional short weather reports by regular radio and TV programming.



As news spread about their website, teachers and students in other parts of Maryland and the U.S. became interested in participating by setting up local forecasting teams in their schools.  Then, one of Mr. Foot’s students, Greg Jackson, had the idea of setting up a Facebook page. 


At first, Mr. Foot wondered why it was necessary since they already had a website, but he encouraged Greg to experiment with the idea.  On January 1, 2010, their page was launched and by early 2011, it had received over 110 million hits with readers in all 50 states and 100 countries!


As of spring 2011, Foots Forecast had 40 student forecasters in 14 states aided by 11 advisors:   professional meteorologists, teachers, scientists, college students and mentors.


Over the years, Rich Foot has seen first hand the positive effect that connecting students to the environment through weather forecasting can have.


To illustrate, he gives these examples:


Student A, a high school freshman, gave astute answers in class but would not do any work.  In 2009, Foot contacted his mother and proposed the three of them go to an event that was a celebration of “green jobs” and environmental organizations.  There Student A met Dan Dillon of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (mentioned earlier) as well as Dr. Alan Berkowitz, Head of Education at the Cary Institute, and BES Director Dr. Steward Pickett.  These interactions led to the student assisting Mr. Dillon in weekly water quality sampling across the Gywnns Falls watershed.


Student A also got involved in weather forecasting and went to a weather camp organized by the Howard University NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences in Washington D.C.  All of these experiences led to his academics improving, and he went from 50 school absences a year to almost none. His interests broadened to include robotics, Mandarin Chinese and organizing to have his class visit China in 2013.


Student B, a sophomore, was receiving C grades and not academically motivated.   This changed as he became involved in environmental work.  He joined Mr. Foot’s Forecast team and was encouraged to apply for a paid summer internship at the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education.  He was accepted and worked closely with Dr. Claire Welty, BES Field Director on a groundwater sampling methodology.  He later became a strong and focused leader in his school, a dedicated student with improved grades as well as the Lead Forecaster for the Central Maryland team of Foot’s Forecast. 


According to Mr. Foot, this young man’s informal science education experiences “drove him to the realization he would make a bigger impact if he had the academics to back up his public persona as a ‘student scientist’… It could be argued that while some schools have an ‘essential curriculum,’ the outdoor experiences with scientists and educators had such an impact that for this student, it made ‘the curriculum essential’ in ways the traditional classroom setting was not accomplishing.” (From email correspondence with Rich Foot).


The student was accepted into a dual major program for Fall 2011 enrollment in Earth/Environmental Sciences with a minor in meteorology in the college of his choice.


Mr. Foot says that the key to his students’ changed behavior was having something to believe in and dedicate themselves to as well as the fact that multiple people in the scientific community took an interest in them.  They and other students working on the forecasting project are passionate about their research, writing about the weather, and communicating with others on the team.  Mr. Foot and other advisors and college students on the team, including Director of Team Operations Aaron Salter, a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, facilitate student attendance at weather, climate and environmental conferences where they report on their work to the public.  They have been interviewed on radio and TV programs and written about in newspaper articles.  In April 2011, four members of the Maryland Team presented at the annual conference of the Maryland Society for Educational Technology at the Baltimore Convention Center. 


Mr. Foot foresees that Foot’s Forecast will evolve into what he calls “fusion reporting.”  This means that when the weather is mild or uneventful, local forecasters will promote activities going on in their communities instead of focusing only on the weather such as environmental issues and actions, outdoor festivals that bring people together, public policy issues related to environmental laws and climate change as well as support of local businesses.


Rich Foot’s dedication to his students and his subject, and his successful efforts to connect them to the outside world and one another, is a model for teachers in other disciplines.  Simply learning about a subject is incomplete; giving students a chance to apply what they have learned to help others in their community and beyond is a recipe for an involved citizenry that can help make a democracy real.  




1 Information about Dan Dillon’s work comes from a taped interview and email correspondence.


2 Information about Rich Foot’s work comes from phone conversations and email correspondence.

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