Planting concern for nature

Erosion: Fifth-graders' hands-on learning about reforestation helps to keep Maryland's streams clean and nurture young environmentalists.

March 30, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

On a patch of open land along a stream in West Friendship - down a long, dirt path and across a field from the nearest road - the quiet was broken repeatedly last week by hundreds of fifth-graders from schools around Howard County.

They descended on the field equipped with boots, water, worksheets and pencils, and planted a scattering of stick-like seedlings that should grow into a protective stream buffer.

Fifth-graders wielding shovels will continue to be a common sight in the area throughout next month as the Schools and Streams project enters its fifth year in Howard County. Organizers aim to put 1,300 new trees on the program's latest location, across Route 144 from the county fairgrounds.

Through the project, schools enhance their science curriculum with hands-on activities, the county master gardeners get to share their knowledge with a younger generation and environmentalists are pleased by reforestation that can help clean the water flowing to the Chesapeake Bay.

"The kids come out of it with a bit of a good feeling about themselves," said Marc Demeter, fifth-grade science teacher at Atholton Elementary School. "They realize you don't have to go to Capitol Hill to make a difference."

In the first four years, the project helped 7,105 students plant 2,632 trees on county land near waterways. Previously, they filled up a site along the Cabin Branch waterway near Lisbon.

The county Department of Recreation and Parks identifies sites that need reforestation and selects the type of trees to be planted. It also puts blue plastic guards around the new plantings to protect them from deer.

The program "is unique in the state of Maryland," said Kerri Bentkowski, grants manager for the Chesapeake Bay Trust. "I'd say it's unique in terms of environmental education in the country."

The Chesapeake Bay Trust funds the purchase of trees and supplies, as well as transportation costs requested in grant proposals written by the students. The group has provided more than $70,000 since 1999.

Bentkowski said the result is that students "are not only well-educated citizens that understand their connection to the bay, they've actually done something."

"In 10 years, you can walk by there and there is a functioning forest," she said.

The Patuxent River Commission, a body created by state legislation with members from seven counties, would like to start more programs using the Schools and Streams model, according to Claudia Donegan, tributary strategies coordinator.

A pilot program with Prince George's County's environmental education program helped a small group of students plant 1,000 trees. Now, the commission is working to get more partners, including schools and Master Gardener programs, to establish Schools and Streams in other areas of the state.

"We really think it's an excellent thing," said Donegan. "But it does take a lot of partnering."

Howard County's program began in 1999 with master gardeners, professionally trained volunteers who educate the community about horticulture and the environment. They are associated with Maryland Cooperative Extension.

Master gardeners oversee the planting aspect of the program, which started with a pilot program for five schools.

In 2000, the county school system used the gardeners' input to create a curriculum for all fifth- graders that would link the planting project with classroom lessons on conservation, pollution and ecology.

`Excellent connection'

"It was an excellent connection," said Karen Learmouth, coordinator of elementary science for the Howard County schools. "It was a true, authentic experience for our students, in terms of becoming aware of human impact on the environment."

The students "are pretty well versed when they come in here," said Cheryl Shea, a master gardener.

Lessons before the field trip cover the role of riparian buffers in filtering ground water and runoff water on its way to the stream as well as the role of trees in reducing erosion, providing wildlife habitat and offering shade and food to insects and fish in the streams.

Once they arrive, the young people get a demonstration from master gardeners on how to dig a properly sized hole - many of the youngsters find they need to jump on the shovel blade to pierce the top layer of grass and dirt - and how to plant and water their tree.

The pupils have to take measurements, such as the height of the tree and its distance from the stream, and make observations about the surrounding environment.

`It's pretty informative'

"I think it's pretty informative," said Michele Helinski, 10, a fifth-grader at Atholton Elementary. "I like it better than some of our field trips, because I like nature and things like that."

Last week, Michele worked with classmates Ryan Behrman, 11 and Brandon Walker, 10 to get their seedling into the ground. Amid the digging and measuring, the three also found some animal bones and checked out a snapping turtle sunning itself by the stream.

"This is an awesome program," said Diana Behrman, who volunteered to help her son Ryan and his class. "It's better to teach them hands-on. ... It helps them remember it, and it could become a new hobby for them."

Each year, some of the children are alarmed by the worms, spiders, ticks and dirt they find in nature - all are instructed to tuck their pants into their socks and check for ticks when they get home - but many enjoy the opportunity to work outside.

"This is very different" compared to other field trips, said Megan Essl, 10, also an Atholton fifth-grader. "We never get to get dirty."

"It is fun and messy," agreed Katie Lippitt, 11, who was part of a group with Megan Essl and Morgan Mesol, 11.

Their teacher approved of the messy parts, as well.

"It's nice to go out and do a little physical labor and wear boots," Demeter said. " It's not sitting at your desk all day."

"The classroom is more than just in school," he said, "the world is a classroom."

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