Officially integrated into the curriculum in 1994, environmental programming at Gunston continues to outpace and exceed national standards almost three decades later with its immersive and hands-on learning experiences.
by Wendy Mitman Clarke, P ’15 ’16
Few things are as restless as a small herd of high school seniors let loose just weeks before graduation. Even a cool, drizzly May morning under a cloud-smudged sky can’t change that reality, as a group of about a dozen students mill about on rented bicycles and fiddle with helmets. Ronnie Vesnaver, an environmental humanities teacher, rounds them up and calls their attention to where they are about to spend the day exploring on bicycles and in kayaks, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland.
She touches briefly on the topics they will consider today beneath the wide-open sky in this storied place just an hour south of Gunston’s campus: the Native peoples who once lived here; European first contact and subsequent colonial settlement in and around Blackwater; the role of the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman, who knew these marshes intimately; sea level rise, erosion, marsh loss, ghost forests, and the effects of climate change; birds, bees, and the interconnection of species and the roles they play in the life and ecosystem of the marsh.
In short, it’s a holistic study of a singularly historic and vulnerable place that serves as a microcosm of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and, by extension, the larger world. And weaving throughout every aspect of this study is an understanding of the role of climate science in wrestling what Gunston’s Head of School John Lewis has called “one of the central challenges we are facing as a species.” If this seems like a lot to pile into one day of kayaking and bicycling around a 30,000-acre marsh, consider that these are not new topics for them. Every year, for all of their years at Gunston, students participate in a mandatory Bay Studies program each May, a week-long program of full immersion into their home, the Chesapeake Bay.
Along with a year-round curriculum that emphasizes the study of climate science across disciplines, this senior-year Bay Studies week is the culmination of an extended, four-year examination into the study of its relationship to the cultural history, environment, and ecology of the Bay.
“For students in the 21st century, learning the skills of preserving and stewarding the natural environment is essential, and Gunston believes that we have an educational and moral responsibility to teach students how to live in a sustainable manner,” Lewis wrote in 2014 on the 20th anniversary of Bay Studies, “the cornerstone of Gunston’s environmental program.”
It’s worth noting the date— 1994 —when Bay Studies began. In 1994, climate science was barely becoming a household term. Only two years earlier, the United Nations had developed a framework for governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it was formalized in 1997 as the Kyoto Protocol.
In 2011, the State of Maryland was lauded for being the first in the nation to impose an environmental literacy requirement for students graduating public high school. Fully 14 years earlier, Gunston began Bay Studies to provide cross-curricular, hands-on, immersive education in precisely that, and more. Gunston is also believed to be one of the only schools (if not the only one) in the nation to require the study of climate science and this extensive level of environmental programming in order to graduate.
“While Bay Studies wasn’t formally introduced as a stand-alone program at Gunston until 1994, environmental literacy and a focus on the Chesapeake Bay watershed was something already present throughout the curriculum.” - Assistant Head of School Christie Grabis, now in her 37th year.
An assignment entitled “Life on the Water,” carefully preserved in Gunston’s archives chronicles the three-day expedition a group of students took in 1987. Students spent a day oystering on Eastern Bay with captain Dick LeBrie, followed by a trip to Smith Island and Crisfield, and ending with a trip to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md.
Over the years, Bay Studies has provided students multiple lenses through which to examine the Chesapeake’s environment and the ways in which human history and culture intertwines with it. These have included workshops in photography, birding, environmental cinematography, environmental engineering, water chemistry, and nature writing, and experiences like whitewater rafting on the Potomac River, hiking, and even journeys to the Amazon rainforest in Peru, where students conducted comparative studies on environmental issues and indigenous people. The program has added numerous courses that focus on the role that climate science plays through each of these lenses. Throughout, the concept that hands-on immersion leads to a deeper connection to and understanding of the Chesapeake as a comprehensive, complex entity has remained unchanged.
But looking across the marshes of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge today, or for that matter, the waterfront that fringes Gunston’s campus on the Corsica River, launching Bay Studies in 1994 seems profoundly prescient. So-called nuisance tides now routinely flood the parking lot of nearby Centreville wharf, where these students embarked on their Gunston experience four years ago as they traveled by boat to the campus. Sea level in Maryland is predicted to rise as much as 2.1 feet by 2050. Fox Island off Pocomoke Sound—where Gunston students lived and learned with Chesapeake Bay Foundation educators as part of Bay Studies in years past—is succumbing so quickly that CBF in 2019 closed its education center there after 40 years.
“Blackwater has lost five thousand acres of marsh since the 1930s,” Vesnaver tells the students, as they stand on an observation platform and gaze across miles of marsh pocked with hummocks and spindly loblolly pines. In addition to the effects of subsidence and sea level rise, “what humans do is create hard structures that back up against the marsh, so the marsh can’t move. It gets flooded because it’s trapped between the impervious surfaces we create and encroaching water.”
Yet amid the discussions of sea level rise and invasive species, Vesnaver notes stories of success here as well, including the eradication of invasive nutria, and the restoration of raptors like osprey and bald eagles, who were nearly extirpated in the 1970s due to the widespread use of DDT. (Later in the day, the students would paddle Blackwater River and float nearly beneath a bald eagle perched beside its massive nest, while adult ospreys hunted overhead and fledglings tested their young wings nearby.) While humans can disrupt the ecosystem, Vesnaver points out, scientific study of the effects of that disruption, and a social commitment to solving the problems they create are equally powerful. As is simply getting to know a place and learning to appreciate it.
“I feel like it was very constant throughout my four years,” says Helen Boone ’21, who went on to study biology and is a part of the Climate Scholars Program at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “I had a lot of classes where we went down to the water to do experiments.[...] it’s very hands-on, and that’s something I’ve always liked about Gunston’s program, that connection to the Bay.”
During her freshman year of Bay Studies, Boone spent five days aboard Echo Hill Outdoor School’s historic skipjack Ellsworth and buyboat Annie D, sleeping under the stars on the Chester River, watching local watermen working pound nets and talking with them about their catch, dragging a seine net and studying what it gathered, catching crabs and perch for dinner, listening to music and poetry while the sun set. The experience was so profound that she used the journal she kept during the week as the basis for her senior paradigm, a reflection of her four years of growth at Gunston.
“Something that I feel like I’m really lucky to have is such an in-depth understanding of the Chesapeake Bay and climate issues here, because now I get to go to an entirely different environment that is also at high risk in terms of climate change and see how the two connect, see what strategies are the same, what strategies could be transferred between the two places,” she says.
Partnering with organizations like Echo Hill Outdoor School, Sultana Education Foundation, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has also been a consistent aspect of Bay Studies. This year, students kayaked with the Sultana Education Foundation at Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area and Jackson Creek on nearby Kent Island, two entirely different waterfronts within just a few miles of one another. Along with the pure fun of paddling, the students took in the pristine, tree-lined banks of Wye Island and compared them with the highly developed Jackson Creek.
While Bay Studies brings students hand-in-hand with the Chesapeake for a week each year over their four years, perhaps its ultimate expression is in the Chesapeake Watershed Semester, which launched its first semester in 2018. This semester-long program combines 10 weeks of on-campus classroom work with five weeks of off-campus field studies. Expeditions include kayaking on the John Smith Waterways Trail, studying restoration ecology and climate science with CBF on Tangier Island, investigating land use and energy in the Pennsylvania portion of the watershed, and studying public policy and government as it relates to the environment in Washington, D.C., and Annapolis.
“I can certainly say that the Chesapeake Watershed Semester was unlike anything I have done before,” says Henry Shifrin ’21, who is currently attending Northeastern University. Visiting a small, watermen-based community like Smith Island, Maryland, or Wachapreague, Virginia, and learning about the environmental and economic challenges “is a really great microcosm of what we see throughout the world. It really taught us how to go into those communities and figure out what issues they’re facing, and how we might be able to improve that.” It was a big jump for Shifrin, who admits he was “an indoorsy kid, very happy in my bedroom,” before coming to Gunston.
“To have my classroom physically be outside in the day was fantastic because it’s the first time that I had really had a deeper connection to nature than just going for a walk in my neighborhood, and to learn about the environment in which I’m living before I leave for college is really important to me.”
Between the Chesapeake Watershed Semester and Bay Studies, he says, “I’ve camped out on Smith Island. I spent a lot of time going up and down the Shore. We went all the way over to D.C., one time to go explore the African-American Museum [of History and Culture]. We’ve covered the whole watershed, and it’s been amazing.”
“Climate science and global awareness is something that’s really important, especially in the 21st century. And as we think about moving forward as global citizens, this is an issue that’s going to be affecting us for the rest of our lives. To have a deep connection to nature at a young age is something that I think you can’t really put a value on.” - Henry Shifrin ’21