MAT Program Promotes Environment-Based Learning

October 1, 2003

With a federal grant of more than $55,000, Mary Baldwin’s Master of Arts in Teaching Program is working with a large corporation and a small-town school system to improve learning through study of the environment.

The arrangement is one of three partnerships funded by grants totaling more than $100,000 and coordinated through the MAT’s environment-based learning project and its director, Tamra L. Willis. Through activities and study, students in all of the ventures learn skills and acquire knowledge important to their general education.

This fall, the MAT Program is teaming up with Covington, Virginia, schools and the southwestern Virginia city’s largest employer, paper manufacturer MeadWestvaco Corp., to give 15 teachers the opportunity to take an MAT course — Inquiry in the Natural Sciences — in Covington and put their new knowledge to work in the classroom.

Students in the primary grades will participate in the planning and development of gardens and habitat plantings. Sixth-graders will participate in field trips conducted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers. Students in the seventh grade will take part in a project to convert an eroded bank at the school into a tiered garden and later help primary-grade students plant the garden.

Also as part of the course, MeadWestvaco biologists will assist and Covington teachers and high school students to examine the Jackson River, which is among the tributaries feeding the James River and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. These students will participate in a three-day trip to the bay to view firsthand the impact of area land-use practices. will examine streams that are among those forming the headwaters of the James River. Providing funding is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) Program. NOAA is a federal agency that includes the National Weather Service.

“There is no better way for students to learn than through real experiences,” said Willis. “Our plan is for the students to gain content knowledge and skills in all subjects through these hands-on investigations.” One of the other two projects involves oyster gardening — raising oysters for release — with schools in the Tidewater area of Virginia, funded through the Virginia Oyster Reef Heritage Foundation and the Virginia Environmental Endowment. In the second project, a schoolyard garden will be established at North River Elementary School in Augusta County, not far from Mary Baldwin, supported by the Tides Foundation’s Agua Fund. Addressing the Virginia Standards of Learning will be a focus of all three projects.