By Stephanie Lipcius Palko
For a dozen years, NorthBay has been educating sixth graders in week-long programs that combine an environmental experience with common sense lessons about life’s choices.
Located in the Elk Neck State Park, NorthBay also offers summer camps, retreats and an outreach program for teachers and schools.
Now this environmental camp is going national.
To understand why this particular environmental camping experience has grown through the years, it is necessary to explain the philosophy of the program, according to NorthBay executive director Keith Williams.
“The kind of education we do is really pretty unique,” Williams said.
NorthBay takes an inquiry-based academic study of the environment to put sixth grade students into the great outdoors where they spend a Monday through Friday during their sixth grade school year walking through the woods, wading through swamps and exploring the beach and nearby Northeast River.
But the curriculum uses the environmental lessons to teach morality, Williams said, calling it “social, emotional learning.”
One of the lessons is to decide how organisms fit into their niche in the environment. In gauging the health of the environment, students also explore the filters in the natural world such as how the wetlands filter impurities from land run-off before it hits the rivers and Chesapeake Bay, he explained.
During these environmental discussions, NorthBay instructors will casually ask students about what their niche is in their community and if they have filters to assist them – filters like parents, teachers, mentors or good friends.
“We ask them, ‘who is the right filter in your life?’” Williams said.
“This is a non-confrontational way to get the students to discuss their lives,” he said, adding it is a springboard into discussions of the choices to be made in life.
“We’ve zeroed in on the middle school students,” he said.
Sixth graders were selected for the program because of their level of maturity, Williams said. At the age of 12, the students are old enough to understand the concept of making good choices, while at the same time being young enough to not have made any serious mistakes, he explained.
“It’s really about personal responsibility,” Williams said.
During the past several years, NorthBay personnel have been invited to speak about the program at a number of national environmental education gatherings. The Northeast River site has also gained a lot of new schools signing up for the program. Interest in their curriculum has come from throughout the nation and NorthBay is looking at ways to enhance their programs locally and to reach out to other areas.
“There are areas where we are expanding,” said NorthBay executive director Keith Williams.
NorthBay has contracts with groups including the Forest Service. They have developed a program of river snorkeling, a pursuit that is even coming into its own in the Elk Neck area as the water quality has improved.
“You can often see up to 15 feet underwater,” Williams said, of local rivers.
They are explaining the program in Alabama, Virginia and Vermont where the lessons speak of water quality and how to improve the watershed.
The environmental education and moral lessons work anywhere, he said. In explaining the universal message of the program, Williams said, “We all live upriver of somebody else.”
In Oregon, NorthBay will be involved in environmental education for school children, but they are not yet sure if the program will emulate the Northeast River location or if it will be school-based. Williams said the funding to bring the environmental program to Oregon had to be approved by the voters and 80% of voters supported the proposal.
There have been discussions about whether to build another facility like the NorthBay in Cecil County in several other locations in the nation and there are opportunities for more public/private partnerships like the one they have with the state park, but Williams said they carefully weighing their options before making any decisions.
In the meantime, NorthBay is expanding their footprint on their Elk Neck campus. They will add a new building near the teacher housing.
“Primarily, that’s going to be the home of our teacher training facility,” Williams said. “The new building will be 12,977 square feet and will provide indoor teaching space for our teacher professional development program and indoor meeting space for our youth leadership drug prevention program. It will be one story with a technology classroom, wet lab, two large classrooms and administrative space.”
Learning At NorthBay
When sixth grade students come to NorthBay for the week, they will find that much of their time is spent outdoors.
The NorthBay facility on Elk Neck represents an investment of approximately $40 million. There is a large dining building for the many youngsters who come to the facility each year. Another large building has a commanding view of the Northeast River and the expansive beach along the river. Its main function is as an educational facility when inclement weather makes outdoor education impossible. There is a guesthouse that sleeps 22 and can be used for retreats. Sleeping facilities consist of bunkhouses with the boys’ area separated from the girls’ area.
There are trails through the forest, boardwalks in and around wetland and zip lines to get the campers to push their comfort zone by trying something different.
On the beach is access to a pier where the NorthBay pontoon boat is ready to take the youngsters out onto the river for their studies.
Their teachers are often close-by during the day, but the program is led by NorthBay instructors. Boys and girls are kept separated during the day since the sixth graders are often distracted by the impulse to try to impress the opposite sex. When night falls, the learning continues. There is a theater with high-tech equipment that shows movies and videos and a stage where comedians and musicians further the NorthBay program. Williams said this speaks to the students’ pop culture and comfort with electronic media.
Students sleep in bunkhouses chaperoned by camp counselors. The teachers sleep in a motel on the grounds.
After the session, NorthBay personnel will visit the school to see how the information has been retained by the students and to help the schools continue environmental education and other lessons from NorthBay.
• The school program can accommodate 350 students per week.
• The students all eat together at large tables in the dining hall. Some students report they never eat at a table with their families at home. The program’s focus on choices includes teaching the students how to make good food choices.
• When NorthBay opened, it was assumed that local students and other students from rural counties would have more knowledge of the Bay and woodlands. NorthBay personnel say this is not the case. About 70% of the youngsters, whether they are from rural or urban counties, have had very little or no practical environmental experiences.
• Even though there are a lot of people residing in the Upper Bay, there are few programs studying the bay. NorthBay students were the first to document the spread of invasive zebra mussels in local waters. NorthBay students also were the first to confirm the invasion of snakehead fish in the area.
• During their first decade of operations, NorthBay saw 207,468 students from 350 schools in 13 states.
• NorthBay has 145 employees with 97 of them working full time.
• Cecil County schools were the first to commit to send sixth graders to the program and NorthBay has a close relationship with county schools. NorthBay is working with local schools on the Cecil County Youth Leadership Program to help students learn how to help other students keep away from drugs.
• NorthBay has summer camp experiences, as well.
• With schools reporting how the lessons at NorthBay appear to positively impact the students for weeks after the program, a program known as NorthBay Extended or NEXT has been started with NorthBay personnel going to schools that have attended NorthBay to help start service learning, day trips, environment programs and how to encourage green schools.