News →

‘Teachers On The Bay’ Expands Environmental Education In The Classroom

Chesapeake Bay Foundation educator Norah Carlos
Chesapeake Bay Foundation educator Norah Carlos explains fish fins with a song and dance. (Image: Megan Pauly/WCVE)

Each year, some Virginia teachers return to the classroom after a unique opportunity to obtain teaching credits outdoors. The weeklong summer class “Teachers on the Bay” brings educators to the Rappahannock river to learn about the complex ecosystem below the water’s surface.

WCVE’s Megan Pauly has more for Learning Curve:


It’s a hot and sunny July day, and teachers from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania lather on sunscreen and prepare to board a 42-foot long boat.

Carlos: It doesn’t get much better than this.

That’s Norah Carlos, an educator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Teachers test water quality. (Photo M. Pauly)

With the group, they test water quality, and examine crab and marine life. Teachers also learn about different types of fish fins. For that one, Carlos has a song.  

Carlos: Dorsal, pectoral, pelvic, caudal, pelvic, caudal... lateral line, gills, operculum….

Teachers receive up to 45 hours of continuing education credit in exchange for developing curriculum based on what they’ve learned.

It has to include some sort of outdoor field activity to investigate a big question. Kelli Rhymes is a science teacher at the Virginia Academy in Ashburn.

She’s excited to take a more hands-on approach to teaching, and wants to have students examine how changes to the environment  can affect different species, like fish in the Rappahannock and eagles nesting in cliffs along the shoreline. One problem she wants to explore: widespread plastic pollution.

Teachers pull up fish to examine. (Photo M. Pauly)

Rhymes: If you show kids those pictures of turtles with those plastic rings around their necks or whales with plastic around their fins, or those big gyres in the oceans that are nothing but plastic oceans and rope islands, they’re upset about that. And I think that if they can fathom that when they throw that cup on the ground that that becomes a part of that. And that when other people do that, that that’s where it goes, maybe they’re care about it more from the animal perspective.

A question still lingering for her at the end of the day: how to show students’ the connection between local and global environmental issues, and go beyond the basics.

Rhymes: Reduce, reuse, recycle….you know they’re not engaged in that.

How to engage students? Fellow participants had some ideas: explore the school grounds, and look at runoff and erosion. Tap into projects already in place in some districts: like solar power and rainwater systems. For schools close to the water, start an oyster nursery.

Teachers examine different types of fish. (Photo M. Pauly)

Bill Portlock, who started the program 30 years ago, says that gets to the heart of what the class is all about.

Portlock: Often even our teachers and our students in the community can live in a community and a county, go over a bridge and never really know what’s underneath it. This class lets you go into the marshes and the creeks underneath to see what lives there.

Portlock says many things have improved in the Rappahannock over the decades, like the local eagle population, water quality and underwater grass varieties. He hopes the future brings even more life to the area.

Portlock: More fish, more crabs, more ducks!

And now that teachers are back in school  – they’re putting what they learned on the bay into action.

For Learning Curve, I’m Megan Pauly, WCVE News.