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Environmental Project Learning

In this integrated “nature immersion” program, students meet all curriculum outcomes through environmental projects that restore school ground habitats and local ecosystems


by Julie Tracy with Kathleen Glaser

Grade levels: K-5

Subject areas: science, language arts, math, social studies, art

Key concepts: environmental awareness and action projects

Skills: observing, investigating, reading, writing, measuring, problem solving

Location: indoors and outdoors


Observing praying mantises laying eggs in the meadow, investigating a rotting log, monitoring bird feeding and nesting, studying dragonfly nymphs and adults, restoring a meadow — these are but a few of the inquiry-based environmental projects that students conduct as part of the “nature immersion” curriculum at Hollywood Elementary School in Hollywood, Maryland. Situated in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the school’s 72-acre site encompasses a meadow, woodland, stream, and wetland — habitats that provide for first-hand observations and stimulating discoveries of how natural systems operate. The school’s 620 students take an active role in the conservation, restoration, and celebration of this rich natural environment by assuming responsibility for planning and implementing projects that improve both the ecological and educational value of the school site. As a vehicle for curriculum in Grades K to 5, these environmental projects integrate subject areas; develop scientific skills of inquiry, observation, and experimentation; and demonstrate to students that their knowledge and skills can be applied in a meaningful context.

Hollywood Elementary School’s use of the environment in integrated learning projects began more than a decade ago when teachers discovered the connection between the mastery of basic skills and students’ natural interest in the outdoors. Early curriculum projects included assessing the water quality in the stream by analyzing ratios of aquatic insect populations, and initiating a community recycling program before local government officials had even recognized the need to organize such a program for citizens. Over time, integrated environmental projects have grown organically, nourished by teachers’ ideas, by students’ motivation to engage in project learning, and by the increasing need to take measures to preserve the wonderful resources of the Chesapeake Bay.

Other key factors in the evolution of the program have been the administration’s support for integrated curriculum, and regular opportunities for teachers to increase their knowledge of primary sources and methodology through such workshops as Project Wet, Project Learning Tree, and summer sessions with education professor Dr. Sylvia Chard, author of The Project Approach. Community support has also contributed immensely to the program’s success. Parent and community volunteers, naturalists from local nature parks, a biologist from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, experts from the Department of Natural Resources and Soil Conservation, as well as county and state environmental educators and organizations, have been essential sources of information and support for teachers and students.

Getting students outside to engage in integrated studies in the environment has enhanced learning significantly. In the 1990s, Hollywood Elementary School participated in a study that compared the achievement of students in schools with traditional curricula with that of students in 40 schools in the U.S. that were successfully integrating subject areas through environmental education. The report, published in 1998 by the State Education and Environment Round Table (SEER), noted higher achievement in schools that were “using the environment as an integrating context for learning” — which SEER defined as “using a school’s surroundings and community as a framework within which students can construct their own learning, guided by teachers and administrators using proven educational practices.”1 The study found that students in these programs perform better on standardized tests in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies;have fewer discipline problems; are more engaged in learning; and have a greater sense of ownership in their accomplishments.

Environmental project overview

In general, the various stages of an integrated environmental project can be classified into six broad categories of learning: observation, investigation, restoration, monitoring, celebration, and education (see “Stages and Types of Learning” chart, below). As each project evolves, it encompasses most, if not all, of these types of learning. At the beginning of a project, students are encouraged to make their own observations and to ask questions about their surroundings on the school grounds. These observations then lead to investigations to determine how well the schoolyard provides habitat for wildlife and how it affects the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay. Next, students identify an area where wildlife habitat could be enhanced or where erosion needs to be controlled in order to prevent runoff into the bay. Once they have identified a problem area, they design an environmental restoration project. The project often involves measuring and mapping the area, conducting soil tests and other investigations, selecting native plants from nursery catalogs, applying for grant funding, and planting the plants. Afterwards, the students care for and monitor the growth of the plants. They are also involved in celebrating and educating others about their project and the natural world.

Throughout a project, all of the subject areas are naturally integrated. Reading and writing are incorporated as students read and write about their topic of study, use resources such as field guides and nursery catalogs, write about their investigations, and apply for grants. Mathematics is used in taking measurements and recording data. Connections are drawn between social studies and science so that students understand how the geography, culture, history, and economics of a place are closely tied to its living and nonliving components. The visual arts are included as students make observational drawings. Through meaningful learning activities that integrate subject areas, students better understand the importance and application of each subject area in real life.

Project examples

The following is a brief description of three sets of projects conducted by students in Grade 3 at Hollywood Elementary School. They illustrate four key elements of the success of the environmental project approach: the interdisciplinary nature of project learning; the relationships that form between projects; the connections to the local and global community that are promoted by project learning; and the empowerment that students feel as they take on new projects and educate others. Although a few of the projects described are specific to the Chesapeake Bay region,most can be adapted for use in other regions or watersheds and can be done in any schoolyard or local park.

The Bay Grasses in Classes project has students growing, monitoring, and planting grasses in Chesapeake Bay.

The Bay Grasses in Classes project has students growing, monitoring, and
planting grasses in Chesapeake Bay.

Bay habitat projects

Grass shrimp investigation

During the fall, a group of third grade students went on a field trip to a marsh as part of their study of the Chesapeake Bay. Prior to the trip, the students had studied maps and a model of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, as well as a map of the peninsula where the marsh is situated. At the marsh, the students used dip nets to find out what kinds of organisms live there. They collected small fish, blue crabs, and grass shrimp. They released most of what they caught, but they were so interested in the grass shrimp that they brought some of them back to school to observe under a microscope.

In the classroom, the students began to discuss whether the best place for catching grass shrimp would be in marsh grasses or in the open water. They then designed an experiment to test which habitat the shrimp prefer. They put a sample of grass shrimp into an aquarium that had marsh grass on one side and open water on the other. For each of three trials, the students counted the grass shrimp on each side of the aquarium every 5 minutes for 30 minutes. Because the grass grows in dense clusters, it was difficult to count the shrimp on the grassy side of the tank; but the students reasoned that if they counted the shrimp on the open-water side, they could subtract to determine the number of shrimp hidden in the grassy side. Organizing the data into a graph, they observed that at first the shrimp explored their new environment, but then spent most of their time in the grasses.

Glass shrimp investigations designed by students.

Glass shrimp investigations designed by students.

The results of the experiment raised a new question: What might be the reason that grass shrimp prefer marsh grass to open water? While observing the shrimp, the students had noticed them eating algae on the grass blades, and they hypothesized that the shrimp prefer the marsh grass because it provides food. However, they wondered if the shrimp prefer the grasses because they also provide protection from predators. To find out, the students recreated the aquarium ex-periment, except that this time they used plastic plants that would not have any algae on them. Into the center of the tank the students placed, first, the shrimp, and then two predator fish. The students observed that immediately after the fish were introduced, the shrimp moved to the side containing the plastic plants and hid behind them. If a fish swam to the plant side of the tank, the shrimp would move to a different area of the plant side. Occasionally, one or two shrimp would wander over to the open-water side, but when they came near a fish, they would back up into the plant side while keeping their eyes on the fish. During each of three trials, the students recorded the number of shrimp in the plant side and the number of shrimp in the open-water side every 5 minutes for 30 minutes. The data showed that the grasses provide both food and protection for the grass shrimp. The students made observational drawings of the shrimp and enhanced the drawings with watercolors. Their experiments and drawings were published in the March/April 1999 issue of Dragonfly magazine.

Several curriculum outcomes were addressed through this project. The students met science curriculum outcomes by conducting a well-designed investigation and by identifying the relationship between organisms, populations, communities, and habitats. They met math curriculum outcomes by brainstorming and implementing a problem-solving strategy, using estimation and computational skills, and by collecting, organizing, and displaying data. The social studies outcome of interpreting maps was met through study of watershed and peninsula maps. Reading and writing were incorporated as students researched marshes and recorded their scientific investigation for publication. In addition, the students met art curriculum outcomes through their observational drawings and use of watercolors.

Tile mural project

Third grade classes worked on a year-long project to design and construct large tile murals that depict different habitats in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The tile murals were made in art class, where students brainstormed possible designs and then voted on the layout of their habitat scene. Beginning with an actual-size drawing of the entire habitat scene, they made each of the clay tiles to depict a section of the scene. Those who had studied marshes in the grass shrimp project made tiles that depicted a salt marsh, while each of the other classes selected a habitat they had been studying. All students researched their chosen habitat and composed a written description that would educate others about the plants and animals shown in the murals and the importance of that habitat to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. The murals hang in the school courtyard with the students’ descriptions mounted on adjacent plaques.

This project demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of environmental projects. What the students learned about their habitat through research and scientific investigation was presented through the visual arts to educate others in the school community.

Bay Grasses in Classes project

Much of the bay grass, or submerged aquatic vegetation, in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries has been lost. This vegetation is important to the bay ecosystem for a number of reasons: it slows water movement, thereby helping to remove suspended particles and stabilize sediments; it absorbs nutrients from the water and produces oxygen; and it provides food and habitat for many aquatic species. However, too many sediments and nutrients going into the Chesapeake Bay have overwhelmed the bay grasses, causing them to die off.

Third grade students participated in Bay Grasses in Classes, a restoration project developed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with funding from the Chesapeake Bay Trust. The students grew the aquatic grass known as wild celery (Vallisneria americana) in the school’s science lab, monitored the growth of the grass and the water quality in the growth chambers, and reported their data to DNR scientists. They also used the Internet to compare their data with data collected by students at other schools involved in the project. In May, a group of students assisted the CBF and DNR scientists in planting the grasses in the Chesapeake Bay.

In this project, the students engaged in problem solving and measuring to figure out how to plant tiny seeds in a tray with one-inch spacing. Knowing that their data would be reported to DNR scientists, they understood the need to take accurate measurements.

The learning that Grade 3 students gained from such projects went beyond the application of skills in the various subject areas; it took the students into the real world of scientific inquiry that leads to taking action. In the grass shrimp investigation and the tile mural project, students learned the importance of grass beds in keeping the Chesapeake Bay healthy. Through the Bay Grasses in Classes project, they were able to take action by helping to restore healthy bay grass habitat in local waterways.

Planting projects

As the students progress through the primary and upper elementary grades, a web of interconnections begins to form between environmental projects. The following examples demonstrate how projects build on one another and are revisited over the years.

Planting a meadow

Students in Grade 3 conducted a study to compare a mowed lawn and a meadow as habitats for wildlife. Then, in a schoolwide project, students in Grades K to 5 converted one-third of an acre of lawn to a wildflower meadow. They researched which kinds of birds, butterflies, and other animals would be attracted to the plants listed in the seed mixes. They tested the soil to determine its compaction and drainage. They observed the sun’s movement across the planting area, and made drawings at regular times throughout the day to record the amount of sunlight and shade reaching different parts of the site. They used trundle wheels to measure the planting site, and calculated the area and the amount of seed needed. After planting the meadow, the students wrote letters to students in another school who had expressed interest in such a project to inform them of the importance of meadow habitat and describe the technique they had used. They continue to monitor plant growth and record sightings of animals in the meadow.

Ball fields versus meadow debate

The year after planting the meadow, the students learned about a plan to convert a mature meadow on the school site to six grassy ball fields. Several students expressed concern about the destruction of the mature meadow. They developed and conducted a survey of students in Grades 4 and 5, who would be the primary users of the new ball fields. The survey asked respondents whether they played on a soccer or lacrosse team, how far they had to travel to get to a field, how long they usually waited for the field to become available, and whether they thought it was more important to protect the meadow habitat or to build more ball fields. Students of all ages engaged in debates both at school and at home and wrote letters to persuade others to take their side on the issue. In the end, much of the mature meadow at Hollywood Elementary was lost to ball fields. However, situating the ball fields at the school may have protected a nearby nature park from a proposed plan to construct several ball fields there. In addition, students converted another area of the schoolyard to meadow habitat.

Planting a butterfly garden: Students take responsibility for improving the ecological value of the school site.

Planting a butterfly garden: Students take responsibility for improving the ecological value of the
school site.

Replanting a wetland

In the construction of the ball fields, the dense vegetation of the meadow was replaced by grass turf, a surface that absorbed less rainwater. Therefore, the stormwater management pond at the school had to be expanded. This affected another environmental project of recent years, the planting of upland and obligate wetland plants to create a wetland habitat in the pond. With the help of a DNR forester and other community and parent volunteers, the students removed the wetland plants, stored them until the pond expansion was complete, and then transplanted them back into the pond.

In these projects, students learned that, as citizens, they have a responsibility to voice their opinions and make informed decisions about land use and natural resource management.


Bird projects

As the following examples illustrate, students discover many connections to the global community through their environmental projects. They begin to recognize the commonalties between themselves and people of other cultures. The environment builds bridges between diverse groups of people and promotes an exchange between them. Technology greatly enhances the ease and speed of communication through the Internet.

Building bird boxes and feeders

Students researched the habitat requirements, territory size, and nesting box specifications for several species of birds. Then they measured, built, and mounted nesting boxes according to the specifications. Bird feeders were also mounted on the school site. The students use binoculars to observe and record activity at the bird feeders and nesting boxes.

Bridging the Americas project

The students participated in Bridging the Americas/ Unidos por las Aves!, a cross-cultural environmental education program coordinated by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the Education Committee of the Maryland Partners in Flight. Hollywood Elementary students were partnered with a class in Costa Rica, and they used field guides to make drawings and habitat maps of neotropical migratory birds that are common to both Costa Rica and eastern North America. A native of Costa Rica visited the school to share pictures of indigenous plant and animal species. Students’ drawings, maps, letters, and other cultural items were mailed to their Costa Rican friends who, in return, sent similar items that were put on display at the school.

Planting shrubs for neotropical migratory birds

The students listened to Flute’s Journey: The Life of a Wood Thrush, a story by Lynne Cherry about the challenges that a wood thrush faces during migration. Learning that the populations of migratory birds are declining due to habitat loss and that the birds’ primary plant food is berries, students became interested in planting berry-producing shrubs. They explored the school grounds to locate the most suitable planting areas. They chose areas of compacted soil in the ecotone between the newly planted meadow and woodland because planting in this area would have the additional benefit of reducing erosion near the stream. Given a budget of $1,000, the students selected shrubs from nursery catalogs, explained the reasons for their selections, and calculated the total cost. The plans were finalized and submitted as a grant proposal to the Chesapeake Bay Trust who approved the funding. The students planted the shrubs with help from parent and community volunteers. They continue to care for and monitor the growth of the shrubs.

The “living” curriculum at Hollywood Elementary maintains its momentum and creative energy through the will and imagination of teachers leading exciting yet focused projects such as those described here. In the school’s lobby and hallways, students’ artwork, murals, and displays tell the story of their immersion in learning about the natural surroundings in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. A floor-to-ceiling map of the entire watershed is featured on the cafeteria wall; and during recess children play on a circular map of the watershed that is painted on the school playground. Since statewide testing began in 1993, Hollywood students have consistently scored above local and state averages. Numerous parents and visitors to the school have commented on students’ high level of engagement and their ability to ask questions, make decisions, and use basic skills in real world contexts.

Through these integrated environmental projects, the school community has experienced that each person can make a difference: one teacher’s enthusiasm and commitment to a project engenders students’ learning and interest, and this circle of success ripples out to an ever-widening community of learners and leaders who, together, are making vital connections with the natural world. 


Keys to Success: Starting Integrated Environmental Project-Based Programs

enviro5Taking children outdoors to engage in purposeful learning is the first step in initiating a program that uses the environment as a vehicle for integrated project learning. Beyond that, our experience has shown there to be four major components that contribute to the successful development of an integrated environmental project-based program: starting small, curriculum planning, cultivation of a school climate, and outreach to the community.

Starting small: Because each school is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all model for moving from a traditional curriculum to one that uses the environment as a vehicle for integrated project-based learning. Most programs start out small, teacher by teacher, project by project. All it takes is a supportive principal and one or two teachers who are willing to venture outside with their students. By attending environmental education workshops and conferences, teachers can obtain resource materials and network with other educators. The program grows incrementally as more and more teachers get involved, collaborate, and team up on various projects. Pairing older students with younger students often enhances the learning experience for both groups. As the number and scope of the school’s projects increase, it is important to establish an environmental advisory committee to coordinate and seek resources to support the variety of environmental projects on the school site.

Curriculum planning: The interdisciplinary nature of environmental project work enables teachers to meet curriculum outcomes in several subject areas, thereby maximizing instructional time. When planning environmental projects, teachers match curriculum objectives with the activities students will be engaged in throughout the project. Collaboration among teachers, school administration, and school volunteers provides the support for project planning and curriculum mapping.

Cultivating school climate: It is important to cultivate a school climate or culture that reflects and supports environmental project work, reinforcing the message that students’ learning is valued and respected. At Hollywood Elementary School, hallways are galleries of student project work, bulletin boards report on ongoing projects and animal sightings, and aquaria in the front lobby are temporary homes for Chesapeake Bay organisms collected for observation, identification, and monitoring.

Community outreach: Community outreach expands the audience for students’ work and provides opportunities for forming community partnerships. Through school-hosted events, performances, and science fairs with a focus on the environment, members of the community can share and celebrate the learning. Visitors to Hollywood Elementary School can take a gallery walk or go on a tour hosted by student guides who explain outdoor habitat areas and student project work. Students feel a sense of pride and ownership when sharing their work with others. In addition, partnerships with members of the community or with local, state/provincial, or national organizations enable students, teachers, and parents to benefit from others’ knowledge and expertise. It is also beneficial to seek volunteers among parents and/or education students from a local college, assigning each volunteer to work with a small group of students throughout the stages of the project.


Stages and Types of Learning in Integrated Environmental Projects

1. Observation

Students use magnifying lenses and microscopes to observe components of various habitats. Observations are recorded and shared through field notes, drawings, and discussion of:

-plant and animal structures

-seed dispersal and seasonal changes in leaves twigs and buds

 -life cycles and adaptations

 -predator/prey relationships

 -animal homes

 -animal signs (tracks, scat, bones, chewed stems, egg masses, owl pellets, sounds)

-rotting logs, soil, and erosion

2. Investigation

Inquiry-based investigations are conducted in habitat study areas. These often develop from questions that arise during observation, and include:

-using field guides to identify plants and animals

-surveying and comparing the biodiversity of different habitats

-comparing the habitat value of different sites

-measuring the water quality of the stream, pond, and vernal pools

-mapping sections of outdoor sites and piecing the maps together like a jigsaw puzzle.

3. Restoration

After studying the wildlife value of a site, students may initiate restoration projects. These have included:

-creating a wetland in the school’s stormwater management pond

-converting a mowed lawn to a wildflower meadow

-planting a new forest

-planting berry-producing shrubs to benefit migratory birds

-researching, building, and mounting birdhouses

-planting a butterfly garden and a colonial herb garden

-composting school wastes

4. Monitoring

Many projects require maintenance and monitoring. Examples are:

-enhancing wildlife habitat through plantings

-constructing bird houses and feeders

-watching for spotted salamander egg masses

-collecting, marking, and releasing green darner dragonflies and box turtles

-monitoring weather

-monitoring water quality of the stream, pond and vernal pools

-tracking animal migration as part of the Journey North program

5. Celebration

Students engage in activities that celebrate their experiences in the natural environment. For example:

-reading and writing stories and poetry outdoors

-developing projects through the creative arts of drawing, drama, and music

-using the trails on the school site for physical education

-exchanging drawings, letters, and information about neotropical migratory birds with a partner class in Costa Rica

6. Education

Students educate others about their projects and the environment by:

-presenting information about ongoing projects during the annual Earth Day celebration

-designing and constructing tile murals that depict and describe different habitats

-performing musicals such as Every Day is Earth Day to inform others about the need to respect the environment

-giving presentations to visiting educators about the school’s environmental program


Tips for Environmental Project Work

Establish expectations for outdoor excursions, just as you establish classroom expectations. Encourage students to think and behave as scientists when they are conducting field observations and investigations. Provide opportunities for students to share their discoveries.

 Set a focus question for every outdoor field study, breaking down big questions into supporting questions. Focus questions might include the following: In what ways does our schoolyard affect local water bodies? How well does our schoolyard provide habitat (food, water, shelter, and space) for migratory birds?


Begin a project with careful observation. Encourage students to use their senses to become more aware of their surroundings. Provide clipboards and have students take field notes, make observational drawings, and/or complete data sheets. Collect natural objects and have students observe them under a dissection microscope, taking measurements and making observational drawings.(Return these items when the students are finished with them.)

Follow up outdoor observations with classroom discussion. Encourage students to ask questions that may lead to investigations and project ideas.

Empower your students to take on the projects that flow from the class discussion. When students help to initiate projects and play a key role in planning and decision making, their sense of ownership increases.

Team up with another teacher in order to share resources and divide the responsibility of helping students plan and carry out projects. Pairing older students with younger students can enhance the learning experience for both groups.

Seek community resources. Have students write to experts in forestry, soil conservation, or gardening to ask for advice or assistance in the project.

Seek parent volunteers and assign each to work with a small group of students throughout the stages of the project.

Educate yourself. Attend educators’ workshops provided by environmental education organizations.


Julie Tracy taught third grade at Hollywood Elementary School in Hollywood, Maryland, from 1990 to 2000 and was the 1996 recipient of The Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching.

Kathleen Glaser was the principal of Hollywood Elementary School from 1982 to 2001 and currently teaches and supervises student teachers at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

1 G.A. Lieberman and L.L. Hoody, Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning, State Education and Environment Roundtable, 1998, p. 1.

American Association for the Advancement of Science. Benchmarks for Science Literacy: Project 2061. Oxford University Press, 1993.
American Forest Foundation. Project Learning Tree: Pre K-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide. American Forest Foundation, 1993.
Chard, Sylvia C. The Project Approach: A Practical Guide for Teachers. Scholastic, 1992.
Chard, Sylvia C. The Project Approach: A Second Practical Guide for Teachers. Scholastic, 1994.
Cherry, Lynne. Flute’s Journey: The Life of a Wood Thrush. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997.
Hollywood Elementary School students. “Shrimp Survival!” Dragonfly: A Magazine for Young Investigators. National Science Teachers’ Association, March/April 1999.
Kesselheim, Alan S., Britt Eckhardt Slattery, Susan H. Higgins, and Mark R. Schilling. WOW! The Wonders of Wetlands. Environmental Concern and The Watercourse, 1995.
Lieberman, G. A., and L. L. Hoody. Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning. State Education and Environment Roundtable, 1998.
Lingelbach, Jenepher, ed. Hands-On Nature: Information and Activities for Exploring the Environment with Children. Vermont Institute of Natural Science, 1986.
Maryland State Department of Education. Conserving and Enhancing the Natural Environment. Maryland State Department of Education, 1999.
National Science Education Standards. The National Academies Press, 1996.
North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). Excellence in EE — Guidelines for Learning (Pre K-12). NAAEE, 1999.
Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide. The Watercourse and
Council for Environmental Education, 1995.
Project WILD K-12 Curriculum and Activity Guide. Council for Environmental Education, 1992.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 1999.

<> Chesapeake Bay Foundation
<> Journey North
<> National Wildlife Federation
<>Project WILD and Project WET
<> Project Learning Tree
< Education/Teacher_Resources/Bridging_the_americas/default.cfm> Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Bridging the Americas Project
<> State Education and Environment Roundtable

From Teaching Green – The Elementary Years