Sometimes There’s Value in Getting a Little Mud on Your Shoes

Today we’re hearing from Brian Marsh, a biologist working at our Delaware Bay Estuary Project office. Brian’s work focuses on land and wetland restoration; however, he increasingly appreciates the value of projects working with students where the conservation value is harder to quantify.

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A flower fly on swamp sunflower at Caesar Rodney High School, Credit: Brian Marsh/USFWS

Habitat conservation today only means so much when we face a tomorrow where people don’t value the outdoors. When I work with students and teachers, I realize many of them don’t have the same relationship with the outdoors that I take for granted. Little things tip me off to the degree that some students are disconnected from nature.

For example…shoes.

Me, to a student wearing fancy kicks on planting day: “Why didn’t you bring in a different pair of shoes?”

 

Student, who doesn’t want to walk on mulch, grass, and most certainly not dirt: “Why would I have a different pair of shoes?”

To have only one pair of shoes and no mud shoes to play in? This student’s reality was so different from my own experience of only having muddy shoes at that age. Clean shoes were uncool.

I grew up on a farm, did landscaping jobs in high school and college, and have been doing restoration- oriented work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 2005. So, I thought using a shovel is about as basic a thing as can be. But I was wrong. Working with the students, I further realized that they had very different experiences than I did growing up, which shaped their perception of the outdoors and the foundation for the lessons I was about to teach. I was excited to talk about how native grass plants relate to larval pollinator populations, soil health, water quality, and bird habitat, but the students needed an intro lesson first. I realized I had to redefine my square one.

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A commonly seen eastern pondhawk at Laurel High School, Credit: Brian Marsh/USFWS

Wow, the more time I spend with our younger generations the more I’m aware that connecting students to nature is “mission critical”.

Through environmental education, it’s our responsibility to work with teachers and administrators to understand the challenges they face so that we can  work to dispel the notion that all habitats are green, clean, and tidy. Some are messy, unkempt, and have brown plants. And yet, they are still perfectly good habitats. We forget that even habitat can be a radical idea to those who don’t think about it daily.

Habitat projects at schools take time, need to involve everyone, and need to be engaging to both students and school staff for them to be sustainable.

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Students need basic instruction but can really take hold of the idea of stewardship given the chance, Credit: Debbie Magnin

The Delaware Bay Estuary Project works with several schools throughout Delaware and we definitely see progress and reason for hope. Here are some examples…

Shue-Medil Middle School in Newark formed a team to create schoolyard habitat and make their school greener. Their monthly meetings are well attended by administrators, teachers, facilities staff, and students. They’re following the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Guide. Team building and a supportive administration make all the difference at this school. The principal’s father is even helping by cutting nesting and bat box pieces out of cedar boards we provided and the students help make them.

A small private school in Georgetown, The Jefferson School, hired a full-time environmental education coordinator last year for their 109 students. They have a wall of boots at the back door. A little boy keeps his shovel in the principal’s office, which he collects daily to go dig outside in his free time. A state forest surrounds the school. Students work together to care for the school’s goats and chickens. Students play in an outdoor mud kitchen. Students are expected to be outside here!

In contrast in Wilmington, the Warner Elementary school’s building takes up almost every inch of their property, but they manage to have a garden and want to create habitat with us through their very dedicated student green team that already runs their recycling program.

Laurel Middle and High School is in rural Laurel Delaware and is bordered by a tributary with migratory fish runs. The Delaware Bay Estuary Project is gradually building a relationship with the school and their agribusiness teachers are stepping up to help with schoolyard habitat, including a one-acre meadow, four rain gardens, and riparian plantings in partnership with Delaware State Parks and NOAA.

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Storm water management and schoolyard habitat can go together well. This basin at Laurel High School has become a rain-garden in a high profile area, Credit: Brian Marsh/USFWS

Caesar Rodney School District has gone from having little interest in habitat to hiring a full-time environmental education specialist who has a lot of ideas and energy. The district is considering turning a property shared by a middle school, elementary school, and special-needs school into an ecocampus, which  will be a model for the district, state, and beyond! We’ve helped with creating schoolyard habitat at three of the schools in the district.

Delaware has an awesome community of organizations and federal and state partners looking to make inroads into schools to help restore connections to nature. Delaware is a small state and we should be able to move the needle here. The community has come together to form Delaware Children in Nature and the Delaware Association of Environmental Education, both of which the Delaware Bay Estuary Project is active in. More schools are showing interest. Momentum is growing because of motivated teachers, administrators, biologists willing to lend a hand and kindle a spark, and of course the students and their natural curiosity.

We have a challenge ahead of us to foster a conservation ethic but it’s an important one! I think everyone in conservation should take opportunities to work with kids to better understand the degree of disconnection to nature and the challenges it represents. And by kids I mean average students, not just the handful of kids at each school that are the outdoor loving, curious, science geeks that we can relate to.

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The Delaware Bay Estuary Project is part of the Coastal Program, a habitat conservation program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that focuses on conserving the ecological integrity of beaches, bays, estuaries, and coastal watersheds. The Delaware Bay Estuary Project works through voluntary partnerships with a variety of public and private entities, such as private landowners, land trusts, municipalities, states, and other federal agencies, to enhance, restore, conserve, study, and monitor habitat for key federal trust wildlife resources in the Delaware River and Delmarva Peninsula ecosystems.

 

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