On a cloudy, starting-to-feel-like-fall day this week, about a dozen sixth-graders from Chesapeake Bay Middle School waded thigh-deep into the Indian Creek branch of the Severn River. Though they were wearing rubber boots, their clothes were soaked at least to their waists. And they didn't seem to mind.
"I think something just swam over my foot," said Carly Bair, 11, smiling.
Nearby, several students were pulling a large seine along the water, capturing tiny bay anchovies and even a crab, and placing their treasures in a plastic container filled with water.
Carly and other pupils were planting smooth cord grass, which would filter pollutants from the water along the shore, prevent erosion, provide habitats and buffer waves caused by motor boats.
Carly, like other pupils in the Chesapeake Connections program at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, was feeling understandably pleased about the difference she was making by planting the grass.
"Instead of sitting around, we get to actually do something," she said.
About 50 pupils, members of the middle school's Environmental Action Club, were participating in the two-day event, called Chesapeake Connections, at the outdoor education center in Millersville. The kids slept overnight in dorm-style rooms on the property. They observed and compared shorelines that had been improved and ones that had not; explored habitats and planted shoreline grasses.
The overnight adventure is just one component of Chesapeake Connections, which combines classroom learning with hands-on activities that give pupils the tools to help the environment. And if kids get their hands dirty and their feet wet, that's good, too.
"If you teach them about the problems but you don't empower them to action, all you do is depress them," said Larry Zoller, the science department chairman at Chesapeake Bay Middle School, who was at Arlington Echo with members of the Environmental Action Club.
Zoller, who founded the club about 10 years ago with science teacher Laura Greenlee, recently received the Jan Hollman Environmental Education Award - presented annually by county environmental leaders - for his work at the center and in his school. Chesapeake Connections, he said, is valuable because it "works on connecting what [students] learn about the bay with environmental actions."
The program is the brainchild of Stephen Barry, coordinator of outdoor and environmental education at Arlington Echo.
"It was my dream," he said.
Chesapeake Connections started in 2002 with three participating schools. Now, it has grown to include 30 schools and 90 teachers, including 56 teachers who signed on this year, said Barry.
Arlington Echo, which began in 1971, serves as a resource for educators in the county. In addition to Chesapeake Connections, it provides summer camps and a drown-proofing program, which teaches children what to do if they fall in the water.
As part of Chesapeake Connections, students in Anne Arundel schools are also raising terrapins and yellow perch, and growing grasses that will be planted along the Chesapeake Bay.
Barry described Chesapeake Connections as a "five-course meal." First, teachers are given training about the watershed, he said. Next, the teachers take the knowledge to their classrooms, incorporating environmental education into their curricula. Pupils in a math class, for example, might make graphs of natural observations, while pupils in a writing class might explore a nature-related theme.
In the third step, Barry and other members of Arlington Echo visit the classrooms and "teach in a way that supplements what the teachers teach," Barry said. Tanks of horseshoe crabs or terrapins might be part of the classroom experience.
In step four, the class goes to the greenhouse at the Center for Applied Technology, where the pupils help grow native grasses, which are planted in the spring. The final step of the program is the outdoor adventure, which is what the middle-schoolers were doing this week with their Environmental Action Club.
"This isn't a one-time, feel-good experience," said Barry. "It's a lot of meaningful activities, connected."
The pupils said they liked knowing they could make a difference.
"I think it's cool to learn about the bay," said Lara Mason, 12, who was planting bay grass. "I'm looking forward to raising the terrapins and planting" more of the grass.
"We get a chance to actually help the environment," said Dylan Hudson, 11. "Usually, kids don't get an offer like that."