Floating classroom provides hands-on learning

Alyssa Jackson
  • A group of 18 middle schoolers joined the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to canoe and learn about the watershed.
  • The Susquehanna Watershed Education Program is one of 15 field education programs by the CBF.

As a child, Tom Parke spent his summers being dropped off with his brother and a canoe at a river before his mother went to work. After they had spent the day exploring outside on the water, she picked them up farther down the river. Those experiences fostered Parke's love of nature and hands-on learning.

Now Parke spends his days with the Susquehanna Watershed Education Program, one of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 15 field education programs. On Monday, Parke and teaching partner Emily Thorpe started out the fall SWEP season by taking 18 seventh- and eighth-graders from Crossroads Middle School in West Shore School District for a canoe trip down the Susquehanna River.

Tom Parke of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation talks about the history of the Susquehanna River with seventh- and eighth-grade students from Crossroads Middle School in West Shore School District, during a stop on an island Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

The students had to apply to go onto the trip, eighth-grade science teacher Desiree Fox said, with three teacher recommendations and parent permission. The SWEP team takes a maximum of 20 students out on the river at a time to keep the trip manageable. Fox said the trip was very popular, and some students were turned away.

A day on the water: The students learn how to safely work a canoe on land before heading out from the Fort Hunter Fish and Boat Commission Access. Thorpe also spent time with the students looking at maps of Pennsylvania, the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the many streams in the state. She told the students they are never more than a mile from a stream in the state of Pennsylvania, pointing out how deeply waterways permeate their lives.

"I hope they develop a stronger relationship with the outdoors," Thorpe said before the adventure began.

Once on the water, the students slowly made their way down the river, some occasionally getting stuck on rocks because of the low water level while others had trouble steering. Each canoe held three youths. Thorpe led the group in a canoe while Parke trailed behind to help stragglers. There were five adults with the group, which stopped briefly to look for macro-invertebrates, or some of the larger species that reside in the river, on a small island close to the shore.

Buckets, strainers, ice-cube trays and other containers were passed out to the students to collect the species they found. Thirteen-year-old Kaylyn Smith shouted to her friends excitedly as she caught a crayfish, while others found small fish and other critters.

For many students, the trip was a way to step out of the classroom for hands-on learning, eighth-grade American history teacher Linda Niesen said.

"I hope that in the middle of learning facts, I hope they get excited about learning and want to do more of it on their own," she said. "I hope this sparks something that inspires them to want to get out and learn."

Chase Maynard, 13, left, Ryan Gordon, 13, and Dalton Gerber, 12, use a seine net to catch invertebrates in the Susquehanna River, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

Another goal of the trip was to raise students' awareness of how they impact nature. By searching for critters living in the water, doing chemistry to check the health of the water, fishing and canoeing, science teacher Fox aimed to make the students think about their environment.

"I want for them to understand how we affect the Chesapeake Bay and that we can all make a difference," she said. "I hope they walk away today and have learned something they can do to make a difference."

The foundation: Some of Fox's classes have worked with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on educational opportunities for more than 10 years because the students learn so much and have so much fun, she said.

This season, the SWEP team alone is working with 20 regional groups of students in 12 counties, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Later in September, Parke said, a group of York City students will go canoeing on a local river, and a group from Eastern York High School will spend time on the lake at Muddy Run Park. The SWEP educational team will take groups out onto rivers and lakes in the area until late in November.

B.J. Small, the media and communications coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the foundation tries to work with each school to go to the waterway that is closest to them or would have the most educational impact for them. SWEP takes students to Laurel Lake, Penn's Creek, the Susquehanna River and more. The experience is for students in grades six through 12.

Thorpe said her favorite part of working with younger groups of kids is seeing their faces light up when they learn or see something new. For example, many of the students on the trips have never seen crayfish or other invertebrates they encounter on the water.

For Parke, the adventure component, the same thing that made him fall in love with the outdoors, is his favorite part.

"I like to run canoe trips that I would have liked when I was in school," Parke said. "Hopefully through the enjoyment of nature, they can make those connections and make small decisions about how they impact the environment."