Local Students Take Action on the Eastern Shore

Getting students outdoors for real first-hand nature experiences on a regular basis is Pickering Creek Audubon Center’s number one, primary goal—day in, day out, for 33 years. Pickering is making its mark on the community and the Chesapeake Bay by helping entire generations of people understand their own impact on the environment through meaningful interactions with nature throughout their school career.

Middle and high school students from Talbot, Dorchester, and Wicomico Counties worked hard during the 2013-2014 school year to make a difference for wildlife in their communities. Throughout the school year, Pickering Creek staff worked closely with teachers and students to remove invasive species, increase native habitat and improve water quality to benefit wildlife, and connect students with their local environment.  

Over the 2013-2014 school year, all sixth grade students at Easton Middle School, St. Michaels Elementary School, and Tilghman Elementary School participated in a series of lessons that allowed them to investigate the importance of local wetlands for wildlife, water quality, and Eastern Shore communities. Students learned about wetlands as a natural resource and the characteristics of wetland soil, tested the water quality, discussed the benefits of native plants while dissecting native cattails, and examined how wetlands provide critical food and habitat for wildlife. In May, the sixth grade service-learning program culminated in habitat restoration activities in each schoolyard, where students connected what they learned about the benefits of wetlands and native plants to their school and local waterways. At Tilghman Elementary School, sixth graders removed invasive Phragmites and planted native Marsh Hibiscus in its place. Students at St. Michaels Elementary cleaned up native garden beds in the school’s courtyard before planting native Purple Coneflower, New York Aster, and Boneset. Easton Middle School sixth graders spent three days constructing a brand new schoolyard habitat behind the school’s athletic fields. They planted over 300 native herbaceous plants, mulched, and watered the new site. Many students loved the change in their normal routine; one Easton Middle School student said, “I liked being outside during school, getting dirty, planting with my friends, and hanging out with the teachers from Pickering Creek.”  This project was supported by a Chesapeake Bay Trust mini grant as well as Pickering Creek supporters.

Sixth graders from Talbot County weren’t the only middle school students putting their hands in the dirt with Pickering Creek during the 2013-2014 school year. Pickering Creek educators worked alongside staff from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland, to provide a hands-on, educational experience for Dorchester County sixth graders. During the month of April, every sixth grade student from Dorchester County Public Schools attended a day-long field trip at the Refuge. Part of their field trip experience included a session with Pickering Creek staff, where students discussed the importance of native salt marsh grasses to the success of the Refuge’s ecosystems. Students pulled on boots and chest waders and ventured into the wet and muddy marsh armed with Smooth Cordgrass plugs and can-do attitudes. In an area of the Refuge where staff is actively removing invasive species and replacing them with natives, 300 sixth grade students planted over 3,000 native salt marsh grasses.

High school students also got in on the planting action during the past school year through the Governor’s Stream Restoration Challenge and the Audubon Watershed Experience. Ninth grade Environmental Science students at Easton High School and St. Michaels Middle High School participated in the Governor’s Stream Restoration Challenge project, focusing on habitat restoration and forested stream buffers along the local Tanyard Branch stream in Easton.

Partnering with the Town of Easton, Talbot County Public Schools, Talbot County Government and Environmental Concern, and as part of Governor O’Malley’s Stream Challenge, Pickering Creek developed an inquiry-based, hands-on program to connect the Environmental Science students in Talbot County with their local water sources. During the spring and fall semesters, students from Easton High School and St. Michaels Middle High School spent time collecting data for a site assessment survey along the Tanyard Branch to determine the best course of action for planting 1,400 trees to increase the stream’s barely existing forested buffer. During the site visit with Pickering, students recorded bird and plant species, tested soil and water quality, and assessed the macroinvertebrate population within the stream. Back at school, students used their data to create and present a planting plan to Pickering Creek and Environmental Concern staff. The students returned to the site in mid-October for a planting day - with help from students from Chesapeake Christian School in Easton, 1,400 trees were planted over eight acres.

The Audubon Watershed Experience (AWE) program, our signature program for high school students, included four in-school and field experiences for tenth grade high school students at Easton High School, Sts. Peter and Paul High School, and James M. Bennett High School in Salisbury. Over three months, Audubon staff connected 467 students from Talbot and Wicomico County with the landscape and wildlife within their watershed while investigating human impacts, environmental issues, and the benefits of native plants, wetlands, and habitat restoration. High school and elementary school students planted seven native species, totaling more than 1,000 native plants, along the edges of a restored freshwater wetland at Pickering Creek Audubon Center. In addition to engaging directly with scientific data and the local landscape, high school students created their own habitat restoration plans, mentored local 4th and 5th grade students about habitat restoration and environmental issues, and wrote press releases about their experience in the AWE program. This project was supported by the Chesapeake Bay Trust and Pickering Creek supporters.

With the 2015-2016 school year underway, Pickering Creek is gearing up for another year of hands-on, action-oriented experiences for local students. Pickering Creek will continue to provide the sixth grade service-learning curriculum and project for all sixth grade classes in Talbot County. In addition to working with the Talbot County sixth grade, Pickering Creek will expand the existing relationship with sixth grade students and teachers in Dorchester County Public Schools thanks to a significant grant from the NOAA B-Wet program to provide a year-long meaningful watershed experience program culminating in a habitat restoration project for each of the three middle schools in Dorchester County. The Audubon Watershed Experience continues to grow, as the 2015-2016 school year will see the return of both public and private high schools participating from Wicomico County and Talbot County, as well as the addition of two high schools from Caroline County. The Governor’s Stream Restoration Challenge project will be repeated at three additional sites this year, and will include elementary and middle school students in addition to high school students.

Providing students with the opportunity to investigate their local landscape and watershed through experiential, interdisciplinary, and action-oriented experiences allows students to make strong connections to their community and their environment. And, perhaps most importantly, it allows students the chance to put their mark on a landscape that will be around for generations. Pickering Creek is committed to providing these important opportunities for exploration, investigation, action, and reflection to all students.