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Studying the Environment

Park View juniors and seniors are leaving their textbooks and the traditional classroom setting for a walk on the wild side.

Students in the Environmental Exploration class often call the outdoors their classroom, using nets, soil and water testing kits and a sighting level to study nature.

The class, which was introduced last year, is a hands-on course that has students building wetlands and testing water and soil for nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients. They use nets to collect organisms, and a sighting level to measure erosion. They take an annual field trip to Smith Island or Fox Island to study the Chesapeake Bay.

Roy Ryman, who has been teaching for 35 years, stressed the importance of his students studying the environment. "As time goes on, and there are more and more people and … pollution, it becomes more and more important for them to know about it," he said.

"Until they understand what the costs are for a bad environment, they can’t see it’s actually a bargain to keep it clean in the first place instead of trying to fix it later on."

STUDENTS REMEMBER better when they are in a hands-on setting compared to a traditional classroom, he said. "I’ve had kids who have come back 20 years after we did a field trip and remember every single thing they did."

Most teachers agree that the days of "stand up and deliver" instruction is not as effective, he said.

Julian Finelli, a senior, said he has never been in a science class "where you went places."

He said it is important to study the environment, particularly in light of the rapid development in the area. "Look at the place that Loudoun County is in right now. The destruction the GOP has put the county in, with new houses and stores that are going to be abandoned anyway," he said.

The students have tested the pond at Claude Moore Park, which shows high chemical levels — an indicator of the developments’ impact on the environment, he added.

The Claude Moore Foundation awarded the class a $5,000 grant last year. Ryman said he bought the teaching equipment, a few books for identifying birds and trees, rubber boots, ponchos, and other material because of the Foundation’s generosity. The county also provided books on insects, plants, and flowers.

Ryman has written three grants to get the course off the ground. Students also have sold T-shirts on Earth Day to raise money for field trips and local businesses and civic organizations have made donations.

"Grants are a lot of work, but if you want to do the stuff, you have to do the grants," he said.

Virginia Water and Soil Conservation District awarded a $500 grant, which Ryman used last year to buy the materials to build the wetlands, about 100 yards by 50 yards. An EPA grant, administered through the Piedmont Environmental Council, also supported the project.

THE WETLANDS REPLACED a hole that kept filling up with water, creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes and a wintry icy hazard for people. The students designed the wetlands, used piping to reroute the water and worked with county engineers and equipment operators. "They brought the back hoes in to do the big stuff," Ryman said of the equipment operators. "We bought native plants and trees and made a rain garden. … Instead of the water running directly into the area, it is absorbed as it flows through."

An engineer with the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community services, a mapping specialist with Storm Water Management in the Public Works Department, a representative of the Piedmont Environmental Council, and the Claude Moore staff taught lessons on mapping, managing storm water, rain gardens, and organisms, he said.

By building wetlands, the students were able to reduce the nitrogen that went directly into the streams. Nitrogen causes algae, which blooms and cuts the oxygen supply in water by covering other oxygen-producing plants.

"It’s the biggest problem in the Chesapeake," he said.

Ryman said local businesses and a civic organization donated money and supplies so the students could build a man-made pond at the high school.

Virginia Naturally of the state Department of Game & Inland Fisheries provided a $750 grant and Loudoun Beautiful gave $100 to subsidize field trips, such as the annual outings to the bay and the Baltimore Aquarium.

Ryman said Odette Scovell, the school district’s science supervisor and former Park View teacher, and the county Environmental Exploration teachers developed the curriculum. "It’s a state-approved course," he said. "The kids like it in the aspect that they get to go outside and they do hands-on stuff."

Odette and the teachers meet once a month to share and generate more ideas for the class.

The students also are taking a salamander and tree population census at a biodiversity plot in Claude Moore Park that a biology class created and the Smithsonian Institute subsidized. They are studying a vernal pool that holds water only certain times of the year. Students use it as an indicator of ecosystem problems, he said. "It has unique organisms in there you don’t find in other places. That’s where most of the frogs and salamanders will lay eggs."

Katrina Ross, a senior, said she took the class, because of its hands-on quality. "I feel it’s a good experience, because all of the other classes are basic book work," she said. "You get to work with wildlife. I think it’s an awesome experience."