Fighting for Environmental Literacy

50 Ways We’ve Saved The Bay: Fighting for Environmental Literacy

Mackensie duPont Crowley, communications specialist

When Congress passed the National Environmental Education Act of 1990 and installed the Office of Environmental Education within the Environmental Protection Agency, Save The Bay had already found our own educational niche. While Congress was making small steps to nationally implement environmental education in American schools, Save The Bay educators were leading on-the-water field experiences, working with middle schoolers to trawl for fish and plankton and test water quality. Since Explore The Bay launched in 1986, Save The Bay has been a pioneer of high-impact, hands-on environmental education, supporting environmental literacy for students grade K-12 in the region even before it was nationally implemented.

Students learn about Bay critters during early Explore The Bay years

Our public programs evolved throughout the nineties and into the early 2000s, with the addition family cruises, summer camps, full-day and after school programs, and the opening of the Exploration Center and Aquarium. Beyond providing young visitors with the benefits of increased physical activity level, boosted self-esteem, and improved academic performance in other subjects (especially science), Save The Bay wanted to develop the next generation of Bay stewards, who would make good, informed decisions about the environment and Narragansett Bay.

No Child Left Inside

Save The Bay was not the only one to recognize the importance of an environmentally literate citizenry. In August of 2007, Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed introduced legislation that would both strengthen and expand environmental education in classrooms across America. The No Child Left Inside Act proposed federal funding for states to operate model environmental education programs and train teachers in environmental literacy. By supporting the bill as part of the No Child Left Inside Coalition with 115 other organizations, Save The Bay emerged as a nationally recognized environmental educator.

Senator Jack Reed

“I know that most Rhode Islanders, and Americans nationwide, want their kids to be environmentally literate,” said Senator Reed in a press release. “From saving the Bay to confronting the challenges of climate change, we need to prepare the next generation to tackle and overcome some very complicated environmental challenges.”

The bill would correct the No Child Left Behind law of 2002 that succeeded in its objective of shifting student focus to math and science, but was taking away any time spent on environmental education, among other things. As an unintended result, field trips and outdoor activities were curtailed by teachers who instead concentrated on the subjects their students would face on standardized tests.

Environmental Literacy Plan

An on-vessel Explore The Bay education program

The No Child Left Inside Act was not immediately passed by the Senate, and wouldn’t be until 2015, where major points were repackaged under the Every Student Succeeds Act and re-introduced to the Obama administration. In the meantime, Save The Bay worked with the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (RIEEA) and the Department of Education to host the state’s first Environmental Literacy Plan meeting in November of 2008, making Rhode Island one of the first states to develop an Environmental Literacy Plan in 2011.

While there is no requirement in any state for an Environmental Literacy Plan, Rhode Island’s implementation of one has led to resources that have become vital to the development of engaged, environmentally literate students. The plan has continued to evolve, and today Save The Bay partners with RIEEA and other environmental education practitioners to work toward an assessment tool to aid teachers in evaluating a student’s level of environmental literacy.

NOAA Bay Watershed Education and Training

The NOAA Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) program funds locally relevant, authentic experiential learning for k-12 students and educators through Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences (MWEE’s), multi-stage activities that include learning both outdoors and in the classroom. Save The Bay’s high-impact programming has become a model for B-WET MWEE’s – we’ve even been invited to present at conferences about it, including the NOAA B-WET Conference in Portland, ME and the Massachusetts Environmental Education Society Annual Conference.

The qualitative results of our B-WET Field Studies speak for themselves: educators reported a meaningful, positive shift in their students’ attitude toward studying science in the future, an increase in student agency toward protecting the Narragansett Bay, and overall, observations that students were engaged, motivated, and learning.

A NOAA B-WET program with Central Falls High School students in 2018

High Impact Programming

In 2019, Save The Bay worked with almost 16,000 students, and continued to work with almost half of them multiple times –usually 14 times– throughout the year. Our education team also works alongside teachers to build a program that will fit their curriculum and align with their measured, federal standards.

Save The Bay has been working to make impact as a leader in environmental education for 33 years, and continues to ensure the environmental literacy of the future stewards of Narragansett Bay through the evolving high-impact programming and assessment that has become staple of Explore The Bay.