Teach­ers brush up on the bay’s chal­lenges

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY SCOTT DANCE

As the group of 15 teach­ers pad­dled their ca­noes into the Mid­dle Branch of the Pat­ap­sco River, their leader pointed out a tern ahead — stir­ring a mo­ment of con­fu­sion.

Not a left turn or a right turn, ex­plained Jo­ce­lyn Tut­tle, who leads Bal­ti­more har­bor ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams for the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion. A tern — one of many seabirds com­mon to the marshes the group was tour­ing in Ma­sonville Cove.

The ed­u­ca­tors from schools across Bal­ti­more City had come to see the bay up close as part of a week-long sum­mer school in­tended to im­prove en­vi­ron­men­tal lit­er­acy among teach­ers, and even­tu­ally their stu­dents.

Al­though the bay is close to the heart of Bal­ti­more, the ed­u­ca­tors said, it’s far from the minds of many youths in the city. And many of the teach­ers are re­al­iz­ing how un­fa­mil­iar it is for them, too.

In one ac­tiv­ity, teach­ers were asked to con­sider how the broader bay wa­ter­shed af­fects Ma­sonville Cove, home to the na­tion’s first ur­ban wildlife refuge.

“Did any of you guys know that this ex­ists?” Theresa Den­nis asked her col­leagues.

Den­nis, who teaches sci­ence, so­cial stud­ies and read­ing at Booker T. Wash­ing­ton Mid­dle School for the Arts in Madi­son Park, said she is al­ways look­ing for free and lo­cal ex­pe­ri­ences for her stu­dents. As she and her col­leagues toured the Ma­sonville Cove En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter, she started think­ing about ways her stu­dents could learn from a trip there.

The bay foun­da­tion has been hold­ing this sum­mer­time crash course in Ch­e­sa­peake ecol­ogy for about a decade. Or­ga­niz­ers de­scribe it as an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of “ways that hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties and choices im­pact the ecosys­tems and nat­u­ral habi­tats of the bay through the col­lec­tion, anal­y­sis and in­ter­pre­ta­tion of au­then­tic data.”

On Wed­nes­day, that in­cluded an ex­er­cise col­lect­ing wa­ter sam­ples from the Mid­dle Branch and see­ing up close that its marshes are strewn with trash and teem­ing with life.

That had fol­lowed a trip to Great Kids Farm, the city school sys­tem’s work­ing farm in Ca­tonsville, and a tour of the Pat­ap­sco River Wastew­a­ter Treat­ment Plant.

Teach­ers were also set to meet with the wa­ter-qual­ity ad­vo­cacy group Blue Wa­ter Bal­ti­more and tour Cyl­burn Ar­bore­tum be­fore ven­tur­ing back out onto the bay aboard a bay foun­da­tion work boat .

“I’m re­ally hop­ing th­ese teach­ers can take away lessons they can bring back to their stu­dents,” Tut­tle said — any­thing that can help them “con­nect their ac­tions to life in the wa­ter.”

Todd Clos­son, who leads the PRIDE pro­gram for stu­dents with be­hav­ioral and emo­tional dis­abil­i­ties at Dig­i­tal Har­bor High School, said he was al­ready imag­in­ing his stu­dents vis­it­ing the farm and the Ma­sonville Cove cen­ter. He said African Amer­i­can stu­dents, in par­tic­u­lar, don’t feel a strong con­nec­tion to the har­bor, but the course ex­pe­ri­ence was giv­ing him ideas of ways to change that.

“It helps us to de­velop cur­ricu­lum that’s hands-on,” he said. “I’m try­ing to find ways to en­gage th­ese kids, maybe in ca­reers.”

Wavie Gib­son III, a chem­istry teacher at Bal­ti­more Polytech­nic In­sti­tute, said many stu­dents see his sub­ject in iso­la­tion. In physics, stu­dents can study roller coast­ers, and bi­ol­o­gists can dis­sect an­i­mals. His field trip re­minded him that stu­dents could be ex­plor­ing what chem­istry re­ac­tions hap­pen among pol­lu­tants in the wa­ter.

“It’s more than the lab and a text­book,” he said.

There was plenty for the teach­ers to learn, too.

Af­ter tak­ing wa­ter sam­ples from the Mid­dle Branch as well as bring­ing sam­ples taken from bay trib­u­taries clos­est to their schools, they learned how to an­a­lyze their tem­per­a­ture, elec­tric con­duc­tiv­ity and pH lev­els.

The teach­ers used equip­ment that is avail­able at ev­ery Bal­ti­more high school, ex­cept char­ter schools, but they were items few of them had ever used or had any idea how to help stu­dents use.

“Which is most im­por­tant if I’m a fish?” Tut­tle asked the group. The group re­sponded in a cho­rus: “pH.”

As a fish, she ex­plained, the acid­ity of a wa­ter­way “could af­fect my abil­ity to have ba­bies, or the slime film on my scales.”

Staff from the Mary­land En­vi­ron­men­tal Ser­vice led the teach­ers through an ac­tiv­ity an­a­lyz­ing a se­ries of maps that is usu­ally pre­sented to mid­dle and high school stu­dents. The state agency works with the Mary­land Port Ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Liv­ing Class­rooms Foun­da­tion on out­reach and ed­u­ca­tion at Ma­sonville Cove.

The cove was a pop­u­lar wa­ter­ing hole more than a cen­tury ago. But then, for gen­er­a­tions, it was used as an in­dus­trial dump site. It’s now home to an ac­tive dredge-ma­te­rial con­tain­ment fa­cil­ity in ad­di­tion to the ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter and refuge.

The teach­ers di­vided into groups that stud­ied maps of the bay wa­ter­shed or of the preva­lence of paved sur­faces across Mary­land. They came to a con­clu­sion that en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists know but the av­er­age stu­dent might not: That storm wa­ter runoff flushes pol­lu­tants from across the city and the bay wa­ter­shed into places in­clud­ing Ma­sonville Cove.

They also ex­pressed shock at the large num­ber of plas­tic bot­tles they saw dur­ing their canoe trip.

Rachael Gilde, who helps lead the state en­vi­ron­men­tal ser­vice’s ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams at the cen­ter, re­minded the teach­ers that the bot­tles stand out only be­cause they float.

“Think about how much more is in the wa­ter col­umn and how much is at the bot­tom,” she said.

They also saw signs of life in the cove. The port ad­min­is­tra­tion be­gan clear­ing it of trash and de­bris in 2007.

Along with the tern, the teach­ers saw the abun­dance of birds that have made Ma­sonville a pop­u­lar spot for bird­watch­ers.

Af­ter a tour of the Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of In­dus­try on Tues­day, the con­trast be­tween the dark­est days for the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and its re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion since was clear to Gib­son.

“The over­all qual­ity of the bay is ac­tu­ally im­prov­ing,” he said. “We’re in bet­ter shape now, but we still have a long way to go.”

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