Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Great School Yard Species Contest!

I have been inspired, with each and every school visit that I make for work with School Specialty, an education-focused company, to do something to encourage kids to play a more active role in nature and the environment. On a daily basis, I drop by many public and private schools within several counties throughout Maryland. Maryland’s schools are surrounded by an array of various habitats. From open fields, to ponds, marsh, lakes and rivers, to brush, wildflowers and shrubs, to wooded lots of pine, oak, maple, magnolia and other forest giants, our school’s yards are becoming THE wildest places in Maryland.

So what to do with all of this potential habitat, our pressing environmental issues and hundreds of school buildings filled with eager-to-learn students? That combination creates a rather unique opportunity to radically improve all three.

How, you ask? Well, these links are a great start:

Audubon At Home Schoolyard

US Fish & Wildlife Service's Habitat Guide

No Child Left Inside!

Last Child in the Woods

I propose the following:

The Great Maryland School Yard Species Contest!

Objective: Through experiential learning, the district’s elementary school students will receive targeted education about a.) Local and migrating bird species and populations, b.) Local and regional wild animals, and c.) The region’s native plants, trees and flowers. Students would then be challenged to plan, create and maintain environments within the confines of school grounds. Throughout the year, students will monitor and count the populations of wild bird, native plant and wild animal species that live, breed, feed and visit the schoolyard. At the end of the year, the school with the most points will win a prize (money, school supplies, a field trip, a party). Points will be awarded for local plants, variety of habitats, species identification and documented improvements to the schoolyard. Extra credit could be rewarded for such things like: art work, short stories, science projects, etc. Contest will be judged by experts from local garden centers, politicians, wildlife sanctuaries, bird organizations, etc. and will be awarded at the end of the calendar year.

In order to succeed, cooperation would be required from parents, teachers, volunteers, local wild bird stores, gardening centers, arboretums, education-focused companies (like School Specialty) and environmental organizations like the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Audubon, Patuxent National Wildlife Center, American Bird Conservancy, Maryland Ornithological Society, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, local newspapers, press and TV news.

Lesson plans consist of (but not limited to):
-Core science curriculum combined with hands-on, experiential learning.
-Learning to identify and count birds, plants, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects.
-Learning about the life and behaviors of birds, plants and animals.
-Learning how to increase the numbers and varieties of those birds, plants and animals in the schoolyard.

Habitat preparation:
-Research, develop and construct schoolyard environments that will attract both a diverse variety and larger quantities of species.
-Develop and implement monitoring programs with assistance and guidance from volunteers, parents and experts.
-Develop and monitor nest box programs in the spring and summer months
-Introduce and maintain native plant species within the schoolyard.

Counting and Monitoring:
-Plan times before, during and after school to count species (variety and number).
-Keep detailed records throughout the year.
-Submit and present success stories, positive impacts and improvements in habitat, species variety and numbers.
-Categorize each school by geographic environment: urban / rural / suburban


Student’s BENEFITS:
-Improved test scores in the sciences.
-Experiential, hands on learning.
-Gain a deeper knowledge of the world around them, conservation and making a difference locally.
-Increased physical activity outdoors.
-Increased awareness of and interest in the outdoors, the environment and conservation.
The Educator’s BENEFITS:
-Improved test scores.
-Increased interest from the students.
-Higher Standarized Test Scores.
-Opportunity for cross-curriculum in areas of art (drawing/sculpting/painting nature), math (counting and monitoring), reading and writing (stories and creative writing exercises) as well the obvious life and environmental sciences!
School and School System BENEFITS:
-Higher Test Scores and a diversified learning environment.
-Parents will want to send their kids to these great schools.
-Improved natural habitat throughout the contest area for local wildlife, birds and native species means a greener, healthier environment!
Participant BENEFITS:
-Recognition, advertising and increased business for their donations and discounts on the necessary supplies, materials and participation in the program.
Wildlife BENEFITS:
-The birds and other wild animals receive a better place to live, eat and raise their young, while the native plant species increase. The watershed gets less runoff.
WE ALL BENEFIT when the participating schools finish the school year with GREENER SCHOOL YARDS.


Students will research, plan, build & create mini habitats in the schoolyard.
Students will, throughout the academic year, monitor and count:
-Birds (numbers and species)
-Plants (number of native species present and introduced)
-Wild Animal Species (seen and/or habitat created)
-Create and maintain these natural areas on the school grounds.
Garden Centers, Arboretums will donate / offer at a discount:
-Native plants, flowers and trees, soil conditioner, mulch, etc.
-Help, advice and help in the creation and maintainance of these natural areas on the school grounds.
Wild Bird Stores, Nature retailers will donate / offer at a discount:
-Seed, bird houses, bird bathes, etc.
-Help, advice and help in the creation and maintainance of these natural areas on the school grounds.
Organizations (DNR, Audubon, CBF, PTA, parents & volunteers):
-Advice, demonstrations, manpower, online resources
-Help, advice and help in the creation and maintainance of these natural areas on the school grounds.

At the end of the calendar year, the top 5 schools in the participating County/School District receive discounts for their students at local retailers involved with the contest, a full-day field trip to one of premier Maryland's Natural Areas AND a party at the school in the spring! The winning school will also receive those prizes, PLUS a substantial financial reward!

The challenges of course are numerous.
-Developing approved lesson plans.
-Training the teachers.
-Promoting the competition.
-Finding local businesses to become involved in the competition.
-Finding the time during the already busy school year for children to learn this priceless knowledge.
-Finding the time during the already busy school year for teachers to teach these lessons.
-Finding school systems willing to fully participate in the effort.
-Finding volunteers, experts and helpers to assist in the monitoring, awarding and promotion of this year-long project.

But, despite those challenges, the potential rewards are well worth the effort. I welcome any and all help overcoming these obstacles in order to make this competition a reality. I am eager to hear your IDEAS and THOUGHTS on this subject.


Dan Haas

1 comment:

Sean said...

Hey Dan,
Sean Pelan here, guitar player on Kent Island by way of Annapolis. Been a while. Hey, was reading your ideas about establishing bird habitats and creating opportunities for science lessons and I'm interested. I teach 2nd grade at Matapeake Elem. on the island. It's 3 years old and was designed very environmentally friendly. A new middle school campus just opened on the same grounds so it's a heck of a campus. Lots of ponds and environmental touches. Google Map it and see. You've been birding at Terrapin Park so you know the potential. Nature abounds. Great blue herons greet us in the pond every morning, and ducks and geese love us. At school our kids find praying mantises, frogs and toads, and watch as ducks are raised in our courtyard each spring. The last four just left this week it seems. Our science curriculum in 2nd grade is in transition this year, so the time is right to get creative and take advantage of the environment outside our doors. As a teacher and fellow musician, consider me openminded to your ideas and one you might want to collaborate with as far as getting them off the ground. We don't have money, but we have a great PTA, a willing staff, inquisitive kids and the freedom to step out of the box and get our hands dirty which is rare these days, yet essential if you're to see these things come to fruition. The next turn on Rt. 8 after us is a nursery, too. Get in touch at if you want to talk.
Congrats on impending fatherhood, too! My boy is turning 1 on Halloween. It's quite a ride, man! Every part of it is awesome. Take it easy and keep the strings tuned...

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