Superintendents' Environmental Education Collaborative

Queen Anne's County Public Schools

Michael Page, Science Supervisor for Queen Anne’s County Public Schools (QACPS), credits the school system’s close proximity to the water for making use of the local environment a no-brainer for inquiry-based science education. Indeed, with 265 miles of waterfront property on Maryland’s eastern shore and both a history and economy inextricably connected to the Chesapeake Bay, it’s easy to understand the value of the outdoor classroom to QACPS students and teachers. Still, it takes a deliberate and concerted effort to make sure every student has rich, outdoor hands-on educational experiences that are both authentic and deeply connected to the curriculum. Which is why Page saw a need to first take an inventory of programs and activities QACPS students were participating before proposing new approaches or partnerships for environmental literacy.

Getting a handle on existing participation took some time, but it was worth the effort, according to Page. The inventory helped the district understand which students had access to different programs and identify gaps and needs. This made it easier to determine how students would be best served by specific programs and at what grade levels and where were the strongest opportunities for curricular alignment. It also helped community-based partners see where their student programs, materials, and teacher professional development could serve the needs of the district. As a result, QACPS now has a matrix of environmental learning opportunities for each grade that build knowledge and skills while deepening students’ sense of place and understanding of their connection to the local environment.

Elementary school students conduct most of their outdoor environmental studies on the schoolyard. Thanks to grant funding and a strong partnership with a local program provider, each elementary school in the county has a native wetland on the property that serves as an interactive outdoor laboratory for observation and investigation. Middle school students travel offsite for field-based experiences in and around the Chesapeake Bay. In high school, students participate in STEM projects in partnership with a local college. Projects include designing and building observation buoys and underwater robots that can be used for water quality monitoring and remote data collection.

In thinking about the long-term sustainability of this systemic approach to environmental literacy, QACPS is striving for a balance of reliance on outside partners to run field-based activities, while making a longer term investment in training and support for teachers to build their capacity for facilitating outdoor educational experiences. And, the district benefits by thinking outside the box about who can be an effective partner in teaching students about the environment. For example, when plans were introduced for new oyster beds within the county's waterways, high school Biology Science educators recognized a teaching opportunity. Partnering with a local environmental research facility, QACPS teachers arranged for students to learn about the native oyster population and their impact on the Chesapeake Bay, and how their actions can minimize environmental impacts and create sustainability in the local community.