Chesapeake Bay Foundation: Systemic Solutions to Advance Environmental Literacy

    Mission statement 

    The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is the largest independent conservation organization dedicated solely to restoring the Chesapeake Bay. CBF's motto, “Save the Bay,” defines the organization’s commitment to reducing pollution, improving fisheries, and restoring the natural environment in order to achieve a healthy and vibrant Chesapeake Bay. Since its founding in 1967, environmental education has been a cornerstone of CBF’s work. CBF programs have reached 1.5 million people and aim to connect citizens to local waterways in order to create a constituency who value the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a living, connected system, willing to take action to restore clean water and ensure a high quality of life for all inhabitants.

    Core focus area 

    For 50 years CBF has provided meaningful watershed educational experiences to more than one million students. CBF’s Education Department functions in five core areas: Field Programs; Student Leadership; Teacher and Principal Professional Learning; Operations; and Systemic Environmental Literacy Programs and Policy. This case study examines the latter.

    The Policy Need: No Child Left Inside (NCLI) Campaign
    The NCLI Coalition was formed to help teachers gain more autonomy and flexibility in their classrooms in response to the federal No Child Left Behind law, which required that teachers focus primarily on math and reading through stringent state tests used to evaluate both teachers and students. With a chief goal of helping teachers connect field-based environmental education to state standards, NCLI aimed to address Nature Deficit Disorder and childhood obesity and boost overall academic achievement. NCLI grew to 2600+ organizations across the country pushing to support environmental education. As a result of this work, NCLI language was included in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act and 45 states moved to create a statewide environmental literacy plan. As founder of the national NCLI Coalition, CBF continues to work closely with Senator Jack Reed (RI) and Congressman John Sarbanes (MD) to champion the goals of No Child Left Inside Act.

    Maryland Environmental Literacy Partnership
    From 2009 through 2011, building off of the national NCLI movement, CBF gathered a Maryland specific Coalition of over 220 organizations into the Maryland NCLI Coalition. The Maryland Coalition promulgated the formation of the Governor’s Children in Nature Partnership (an Environmental Education Commission chaired by the state superintendent and the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources) and successfully lobbied the Maryland Board of Education to pass the nation’s first high school graduation requirement for environmental literacy. From there, the focus quickly turned towards robust and meaningful implementation of the requirement. This eventually led to CBF founding the Maryland Environmental Literacy Partnership (MELP), an ambitious effort to ensure that all Maryland students graduate environmentally literate.

    The Systemic Solution and Implementation Model
    MELP is a formal partnership between CBF, school systems, and environmental literacy experts in the field. This partnership was formed in 2012 in response to specific needs identified by local education agencies as they considered plans to implement Maryland’s environmental literacy graduation requirement. Through MELP, CBF collaborated with the Maryland State Department of Education, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and nine of the largest of Maryland’s 24 public school systems to design and implement a professional development pathway and classroom resources that would enable high school science and social studies teachers to meet Maryland’s new environmental literacy standards. The program included inquiry-based teacher professional learning and visionary guidance from partner experts in order to integrate environmental literacy into local curriculum.

    This unique approach for enhancing science and social studies instruction through environmental issues investigations provides important opportunities for students to practice critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity in a real-world setting. Over the pilot period of 2013-2016, over 250 Maryland public high school teachers of science and social studies participated in five-day professional development institutes during the summer and curriculum revision workshops during the following school year. Participants from these diverse – both demographic and geographic – school systems explored the local Chesapeake Bay watershed and examined the connections between land use and water quality, human impacts on climate, and other environmental issues, while gaining experience in the use of field-based inquiry and environmental issues investigation. During follow-up workshops, teachers applied new content knowledge and instructional skills to design authentic, issues-based environmental investigations and action projects that meet state and national content standards. Lead teachers piloted these investigative units in the classroom and teacher and student feedback was incorporated into revisions of the materials before they were finalized and formally published. These lead teachers served as building-level experts and provided professional development to their peers, mentoring on the Framework for Issues Investigation and Student Action and other ready-to-use model issues investigations.

    This Framework was designed to help guide teachers and students through the process of inquiry-based investigations by providing background information for the teachers and field-based investigations for students. The Framework highlights opportunities for students to form and present conclusions and expand on what they have learned by engaging in civic engagement. Through professional learning, teachers and school systems created localized versions of the modules to reflect their own curriculum and local resources.

    The MELP program continued to grow and change according to the needs of the participating school districts, teachers, and partners. Lead teachers and central office staff who were part of the project developed and implemented local trainings for “peer teachers” responsible for teaching the new curriculum modules. Due to the success of this program, every high school in the participating school districts now has adopted curriculum modules in science and social studies and has highly trained teachers who serve as building-level resources and mentors to colleagues. See MELP’s Professional Learning page for more details of how the MELP approach has supported the integration of environmental literacy standards in Maryland.


    CBF was very successful in securing both restricted project support and general operating grants over nearly a five-year project period to support our leadership role in advancing systemic environmental literacy throughout Maryland. The public-private partnerships that were developed by matching our public grants with required private support were fundamental to our success. Yet, it was challenging to align the timelines and amounts of support throughout the relatively long period of performance. Due to its innovative nature, MELP drew the attention and support of national donors that recognized the value in investing in a local project for its potential to be a replicable model. The validation that this support and our diverse group of partners, including the national advisory panel, brought to the project were instrumental in our success and our continued ability to draw other partners and donors to the project.

    Details about funding for this case study are restricted to members only.
    Intended outcomes 

    As a result of this work, CBF and its partners aim to see all Maryland students graduate from high school environmentally literate. Additionally, CBF hopes that all states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will adopt plans to graduate environmentally literate students.

    Details about intended outcomes for this case study are restricted to members only.