Environmental centers get students involved in saving the Chesapeake Bay

Captain Jimmy sets sail on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay with a group of Virginia Beach students on board. Today their biology lesson will take place on one of the liveliest waterways in the nation instead of in a classroom.

For the past 50 years, professionals in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania have been working to bring a once-dead Chesapeake Bay back to life. With a rise in underwater grasses, water clarity and countless species of wildlife, the bay hasn’t been this healthy in more than three decades, according to a Washington Post article earlier this year. The future of water restoration is not in the hands of professionals or adults, but in the hands of children.

“Youth will inherit the state of the Elizabeth River and the environment and they need to understand how to take care of these natural treasures,” said Robin Dunbar, deputy director of education at the Elizabeth River Project. “Studies also show that if a child has a memorable environmental experience, they will likely grow up to protect the environment.”

The Learning Barge, run by the Elizabeth River Project, is one way that's happening. Dubbed America’s Greenest Vessel, the barge has taught more than 40,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students about wildlife in the watershed and how to protect it. It’s a way for students to take what they learn in school and apply it to a real-world situation.

Employees at the Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach also understand that classroom lectures do not get through to some students. That is why they work to bring kids on-site and engage them in restoration efforts.

“Education is an experience,” said Chris Gorri, Brock Center manager. “You can talk about a blowfish all you want, but we can go out on a boat and see what the habitat looks like and why it is important. It brings in that whole piece that the kids have ‘hands-on’ learning.”

Jimmy Sollner, assistant manager of education at the Brock Center, does exactly that.

His efforts, like planting seagrass, testing water quality and examining blue crabs, help the students understand what they are learning in school, and encourages them to take part in future restoration efforts. Sollner said he has seen families of students come through just to see what all of the excitement was about.

“You grow up a few miles from the water and always look at it from the top, but when you start pulling things from the bottom, that interest sparks,” he said.

Greenbrier Intermediate School teachers John Sammons and Karen Arnett have taken that spark into their community. In 2005, with the help of students, they created a rain garden at their school to prevent foreign particles from polluting the watershed. They also participated in planting sea grasses in both the Elizabeth and York rivers to help restore the native habitats. The teachers hope to encourage their communities to get involved as well.

“Parents and teachers can start by going outside with their children and looking for ways in their own ‘backyard’ to engage in environmental service and make a difference,” said Sammons.

“Children want to do projects that make a difference and are meaningful. They have inspired me to bring experiences (like these) to the school and community,” he said.

There are numerous opportunities for Hampton Roads residents to get involved in bay restoration. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation hosts a student leadership program, as well as teacher development projects and boat trips that can be focused on classroom curriculum.

One of their most popular events, Save the Bay Family Day, brings families together to learn about the importance of marine wildlife and environmental conservation. This year's event will be Sept. 9.

The Elizabeth River Project wants the community to get involved as well and to learn more about their watershed area. The group holds its own festival, Riverfest. This year’s focus is on pet waste and the bacteria it brings into the water. The event moves across Hampton Roads; on Sept. 15 it will be held in Chesapeake.

The goal for local environmentalists is to "save" the Chesapeake Bay. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, that means reaching a score of 70 on their health index, something that may not be achievable for decades. This issue is why professionals and teachers alike feel the need for up-close environmental education for the youth.

Kenny Fletcher, Virginia communications coordinator for the CBF, said that giving kids a personal connection to the watershed helps them as they grow up to care for the environment. Together, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Elizabeth River Project, and schools throughout Hampton Roads are preparing children and teens to be a part of the change.

Chris Gorri already sees that in action.

“The students go home, and they engage their parents. It comes full circle. They become the teachers.”