Learning to Love the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Posted: June 8, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: June 8, 2009 at 10:12 am

By Tara Laskowski

When rainwater runs off the roof of a school building, how does it end up in the Chesapeake Bay? This is the kind of question middle school students from Prince William County, Va., will be asking this fall when they become part of a new George Mason University program that integrates the local environment into the students’ curriculum.

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With a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), researchers from Mason’s Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC) will provide a meaningful watershed education experience for every sixth grader in Prince William County.

This three-year grant will provide a field trip to a local park with access to water and aquatic habitats such as Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Prince William Forest Park and Bull Run Mountain.

The program will be integrated indefinitely into the county’s curriculum to realize Virginia Standards of Learning objectives at middle and high school levels.

Dann Sklarew,

Dann Sklarew. Creative Services photo

“As young people explore the watershed beyond their classrooms and practice how to care for its natural wonders, their science education becomes more personally relevant and their interest in becoming environmental stewards grows,” says Dann Sklarew, PEREC associate director and project director for the watershed program.

“These students will be building the knowledge, skills and attitudes of environmentally conscious citizens and protecting their watershed, from local county streams all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.”

Later this summer, Cynthia Smith, Mason research professor of environmental science and policy (ESP), will work with Joy Greene of Prince William County Public Schools to begin a series of three-day teacher training workshops. At least 50 teachers of sixth grade, high school earth science, advanced-level environmental science and advanced-level environmental systems will participate.

The teacher training program will include building lesson plans, examining computer-based activities and training in field activities such as field samples, exploration and analysis.

Students will also connect to their local watershed by mapping its characteristics, measuring rainfall and runoff, and calculating economic costs. They will develop a community-based project such as creating a rain garden or cleaning up trash, estimate the environmental impact of their project and post results to a web site.

Sklarew and Chris Jones, director of PEREC and senior advisor on the grant, estimate that more than 18,000 Prince William County middle and high school students will take part in this project over the three-year period.

At least a dozen Mason students will serve as their outdoor educators. ESP graduate student Robert Johnson will also lead the effort to track the impact of this training on students’ environmental stewardship.

“Given the remarkable growth and diversity at Prince William County Schools and George Mason University, we’re confident the exchange between these students while in natural settings will help both their own education and their care for the bay,” says Sklarew.

The Mason-Prince William County partnership is supported by NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) program.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu