Maryland sets requirements for comprehensive environmental education

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 7:30 PM

Students in Maryland will go through a comprehensive environmental education program from the moment that they enter pre-kindergarten until the day they graduate high school, under new regulations approved by the Maryland State Board of Education.

The move comes as environmental issues take ever-greater prominence, in school and in society, and state education officials said that they want to give environmental topics extra attention. In addition to studying issues in the classroom, students will be expected to create and implement a local project that "protects, sustains, or enhances the natural environment."

But officials at both the state and local levels said Wednesday that they did not expect the new requirements to fundamentally transform how the subject is taught. Most school systems cover most of the issues in their classes, and the requirements are designed to formalize the expectation that the issues be addressed, state school officials said.

"We made a big step in saying it must be in the curriculum, that every student must have that exposure prior to graduation," said State Superintendent of Education Nancy S. Grasmick. "Let's weave it through the curriculum and bring it to a younger age."

No special class devoted entirely to the environment will be required, nor will the topics be on statewide standardized tests.

Students will have to learn about ecosystems, natural resources and health, examining "how their personal and collective actions affect the sustainability" of ecological, economic, political and social systems.

They also will analyze "positive and negative impacts of human activities on earth's natural systems and resources."

In Montgomery County, school officials praised the change.

"This infuses more of an importance into the whole subject," said Laurie Jenkins, supervisor of outdoor and environmental education programs for Montgomery schools. "We're trying to create environmentally literate students."

Students in Montgomery already do service projects such as testing water quality, planting native species and making mulch, but Jenkins said that they could do more, especially at the earliest ages.

In Virginia, environmental education is found throughout the curriculum, but no central list of requirements exists, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. Students learn about the Chesapeake Bay watershed in classes.

Nationwide, there has been a push to include more environmental issues inside the classroom - and even an attempt to make the classrooms greener. Environmentally friendly school buildings are being built across the country, including several in the Washington area. And an initiative called No Child Left Inside, which would provide federal funding to get students out of the classroom and into the environment, has been proposed as part of the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

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