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On Chesapeake Bay, coursework imparts knowledge, wonder and relationship

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Academy students and faculty went out on the water to investigate the surrounding area and learn about the bay’s history.

Students and faculty from The Academy of the Holy Cross went out on the water to investigate the surrounding area and learn about the bay’s history.

On a cool September night, students from The Academy of the Holy Cross stand stargazing in a marsh along the Chesapeake Bay. It’s breezy, and soon low clouds sweep in and obscure the view. Without starlight, the sounds of the landscape close in. The brush of tall grasses, gentle murmurings of water, calls and scuttlings of night creatures. Absorbed in the chorus, the students become more than observers. They are part of it all.

The night walk is one element of a three-day, immersive program offered by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). Participants research and explore the watershed and surrounding marshes while staying at the Karen Noonan Memorial Environmental Education Center in Dorchester County, Maryland. On this occasion, 15 students plus two faculty members of the academy, in Kensington, Maryland, are taking part in the field experience. The program undergirds the academy’s environmental sustainability course.

Teaching sustainability

Founded and developed by the Sisters of the Holy Cross, the academy reiterates the Congregation’s justice focus for a new generation. Through ecological education, students simultaneously confront the impacts of unjust systems and lifestyles on the Earth, societies and individuals globally. Supporting this education, the Congregation provided a Ministry With the Poor grant for the bay trip and water testing equipment.

The academy has offered environmental classes for many years. But this year, the school implemented a Project Lead the Way engineering curriculum, which includes the sustainability course. “In this class, students study environmental and biological engineering; it’s about ‘the doing’ — applying concepts and skills to the problems our planet is facing right now,” says Alison Simon, Science Department chair.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation educators and a student from The Academy of the Holy Cross examine a haul of oysters.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation educators and a student from The Academy of the Holy Cross examine a haul of oysters.

Immersed in environment

Soon after arriving at the center, the group launched in canoes to peruse the marsh. Their charge: simply to look, listen and take note of the biodiversity in their environment. The Chesapeake Bay itself is a natural marvel. The unique mingling of ocean saltwater and freshwater from rivers, the watershed constitutes the third largest estuary in the world and draws a wide diversity of marine life.

Activities that followed included boat trips on the bay, garbage collection and water quality testing. The group also trapped and studied two of the bay’s major species, the blue crab and Eastern oyster. During these events, program educators introduce issues threatening the health of the bay — overharvesting, pollution and habitat loss. And the bay — serving as classroom — reveals the impacts of these factors on the bay’s ecosystem, a crisis occurring globally.

“Learning about how the bay’s health is an indicator of overall environmental health was jarring,” shares senior Juliana Bove. “It made me think about how some features of our environment may one day fall beyond repair.”

Students learned about blue crabs, sustainable crab fisheries and crab traps, which they set and tossed off a dock.

Students learned about blue crabs, sustainable crab fisheries and crab traps, which they set and tossed off a dock.

All species are important

Currently, the bay’s health grade is a D+, notes a recent CBF report. That’s due, in good part, to fewer Eastern oysters and oyster reefs. “The students at first questioned, ‘Aren’t fish more important?’ But they learned how oysters maintain the cleanliness of the bay and provide habitat for other aquatic life. Oysters are a keystone species, so if they diminish further, the ecosystem of the whole bay could collapse,” says Simon. At one time, notes the CBF website, the bay’s large oyster population could clean or “cycle through” all the water in the bay in a week. With today’s population, it takes more than a year.

As a result, excess bacteria in the water spur algae blooms, which block out sunlight. Less light means less fuel for underwater grasses, which leads to depleted oxygen levels in the water. In these “dead zones” large masses of fish and other aquatic species die from suffocation. These incidents also impact other marine life, prey animals and local fishing communities that rely on the bay for food and livelihoods.

Engaging the world

In their coursework, the students learn how their living practices have a similar ripple effect on other people, places and creatures. But in the bay, it’s not so far a leap. “You can sit in a classroom and learn about all the environmental issues our world is facing right now, but it always seems so far away,” says student Taz Stone. “The Chesapeake Bay trip put everything we learned into action.”

They also witnessed the benefits of CBF’s interventions. Artificial oyster reefs, farmed oyster beds, and educational efforts across states have resulted in noticeable improvements. Where the oysters are farmed near the center, for instance, the academy group tested and found that the water quality was better.

An environmental ethic

By the end of the trip, says Simon, “[The students] were still thinking about oysters, and the idea that something so small … could have such an impact on the health of an entire body of water, and how much it can impact our survival as well.”

Staying at the center also imparted good lessons for daily living. Guests are required to tote in all water, clean sustainably, and limit energy use. And there are no showers or flushing, thanks to composting toilets. The experience, says student Kayla Norris, “not only spiked my interest in the bay but also opened my eyes … to all the waste I produce because it has a huge negative impact on the environment.”

Students pulled up their crab traps to find quite the collection of crabs. After studying the species and learning about male and female size requirements, the students returned them all to the bay.

Students pulled up their crab traps to find quite the collection of crabs. After studying the species and learning about male and female size requirements, the students returned them all to the bay.

Restoring relationship

The field experience certainly gives flesh to ecological concepts. But it offers something more too — a restored connection with the Earth.

While stargazing, or doing marsh yoga, or even rolling around in marsh mud, a “separateness” gives way to acquaintance. “So many of these girls haven’t had the opportunity to just ‘be’ in nature, to see the beauty and wonder of this world,” shares Simon. “There, away from the sports schedules and academic expectations, they could just ‘be.’”

The young women echoed the importance of these moments. The canoe trip revealed to student Katie Sheetz that, “I spend too much time invested in what is next instead of looking at what is around me.” For Kayla Norris, the night walk “gave me the opportunity to get out of my own head and just listen. I haven’t felt this much peace in a long time.” For Anna Jasinski, the night walk also “turned out to be a really grounding moment. … I felt so small, and so much a part of the grass and environment around me.”

On the water, in the marshes, up close to elements and animal life, the students could see their place and purpose within a vast creation. Like the oysters, they too matter greatly. We all do.

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This story also appeared in inSpirit magazine. To receive the magazine or the Annual Giving Report, use the button below and fill out our online request form. You can also sign up to receive the online newsletter from the Congregation’s Development Office.