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Leaders of tomorrow flex environmental muscle today

Powerpoint and poster presentations, interactive media, stream table demonstrations, live animals, tri-fold brochures, charts, graphs, detailed diagrams, persuasive letters to government officials, business owners, and community members, and complex analysis. Is this what you’d expect from a 10-year old, a 5th grader? You should.

“When we considered the cyclical phenomenon of the life cycle of the mussel,” said Isabel Emond… Wait. Hold up. “The cyclical phenomenon of the life cycle of the mussel?” Does this sound like the start of an analysis conducted by a team of 5th graders? Absolutely.
After nearly two months of researching potential causes of water pollution and a resulting die off of freshwater mussels in a fictional community, recommended recommendations and plans from students included planting buffers, reducing the use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, wastewater treatment hook-ups, proper disposal of pharmaceuticals, organic farming, and an infusion of ladybugs  – all designed, ultimately, to improve water quality, thereby protecting valuable habitat and species. In addition to their recommendations to implement Best Management Practices (BMPs) for farms, golf courses, industry, and residential areas, some students also recommended governmental oversight, regulations, enforcement, and, when violated, strict consequences including fines.
The collection of evidence, logical interpretation of data, depth of analysis, and careful construction of proposed solutions was impressive. The students’ presentation skills were top notch. The confidence with which students presented recommendations to the panel of experts and the ease with which they responded to questions comes only from a deep understanding of the issues and a mastery of the subject area. The students were calm, articulate, and committed to the solutions they developed as a team. I’ve seen adults stumble – unable to handle similar situations with such poise and professionalism.  
With their theories and proposed solutions evaluated by a team which included field experts with decades of experience with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Park Service, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Maryland Park Service, Ocean City Government, and the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and specific expertise in fisheries, wastewater treatment, stormwater management, natural resources conservation, and environmental education – the students were confident and convincing.
Upon reflection, Gail Blazer, an Environmental Engineer with the Town of Ocean City, noted, “It was awesome how organized and focused these kids were in analyzing the problem. Some groups focused on one specific cause while others focused on the combined effects of various causes. Either way, each group supported their hypothesis and prepared action plans that could be applied in the real world. I was truly impressed with the process they followed and their conclusions.”
Jeanne Gwin is a teacher at Berlin Intermediate School. During that time, she’s witnessed trends in instructional techniques, weathered the implementation of new standards and testing procedures, and is now seeing a resurgence in methods used in classrooms twenty years ago. With new core curriculum changes, an environmental literacy graduation requirement (the first of its kind in the nation), and the promise of problem-based testing on the near horizon, Gwin decided this was the perfect time to try out a new program.
As a teacher of students identified as “gifted and talented,” Gwin has the flexibility necessary to facilitate student-directed learning and challenge the students in a way that is differen
t from the typical classroom experience. “Problem-Based Learning” and “Issues Investigation” offers students the opportunity to address real-world problems, examine multiple stakeholder perspectives, and work together to develop strategies to address complex issues. As Gwin can attest, this style of learning is not always comfortable for the teacher, for the students, for or the parents. There is no one right answer. It’s intentionally challenging. But it fosters a deeper, broader understanding of issues and helps students hone critical thinking skills. This is not the regurgitation of presented material. This is first-person research, analysis of primary sources, synthesis of information, and cooperation among team members.

This is the kind of learning that will serve these students – our future leaders – well. This is the kind of thinking that is needed to solve complex environmental issues. Gwin, and other teachers like her, should be encouraged and supported as they continue on this exciting path. When students live up to challenges in the classroom, their confidence is bolstered, and they usually even exceed the expectations of their teachers, of their parents, and even the expectation they have for themselves. Congratulations to Berlin Intermediate School for creating an atmosphere in which our teachers and students can thrive.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to incorporate coastal bays-related issues in the classroom, please contact the Carrie Samis at csamis@mdcoastalbays.org.
Carrie Samis is the Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

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