Echo Hill Outdoor School makes the perfect outdoor classroom.
The Delmarva Peninsula offers plenty of nature and animal life, and the Echo Hill Outdoor School in Worton, Md., aims to teach local residents and students all about the area’s natural wonders.
Andrew McCowan, associate director of the school, said the school recently marked its 35th anniversary. It was founded by Peter Rice Jr., who serves as the executive director.
McCowan said the school’s mission is to connect people with nature by exploring their campus, which spans more than 250 acres along the Chesapeake Bay, Still Pond, Md., and the Chester and Sassafras rivers.
“We do programs with students outside of the conventional classroom,” McCowan said. “They come to our classroom in Kent County, [Md.], which consists of the bay, farm fields, barnyards, historic towns, swamps and marshes. We connect them in that environment to the things they’ve been doing in their classroom environment.”
In 2008, 5,840 students came to Echo Hill to learn about and touch different parts of the food chain, discuss and witness the biology of a crab or fish, or study the chemistry of water with actual samples. Students can talk about the science of plants when in a farm field or space while lying on the deck of the boat at night.
“When farmers are harvesting corn, we stop a farmer in the farm field and talk about the market and how a combine works,” he said.
McCowan said the majority of the students who come to the Outdoor School are fourth- through eighth-graders. Of the 5,840 students who visited the school in 2008, about 80 percent stayed overnight.
He said there are dorms for cold weather and large Army-style platform tents that provide a more rustic experience. There also is an outdoor dining hall.
“For many of these students, it’s the only time in their life they have woken up in the morning outside and heard the birds in the forest,” McCown said. “It’s the first time they’ve ever really seen stars or hiked in the forest.”
He said Saint Anne’s Episcopal and St. Andrew’s schools in Middletown take advantage of the Echo Hill Outdoor School.
“Generally students are in their regular school experience where they take science and history, and we reinforce that in our classrooms,” McCowan said. “It’s not that our education or programs are better than conventional classrooms, they really are part of conventional education. We provide opportunities that are sometimes and often times difficult for the school system or the family to provide.”
He said Echo Hill Outdoor School’s seasons range from March until just before Christmas. The programs change as the seasons do.
“Our goals and objectives don’t change, but how we get them accomplished changes,” McCowan said.
Students can study the bay in the spring, go crabbing and live on historic Chesapeake Bay workboats for a few days in the summer or catch, study and release crabs in the fall.
“For a student to spend five days in the summer and live on a 100-year-old work boat is really quite the experience,” McCowan said. “It’s almost like going back in time.”
He said the school’s proximity to the Chesapeake Bay provides an opportunity to teach people about the history of the bay and allows them to study it from a physical perspective. Students use a chart to locate exactly where they are on the water.
“We’ll talk about the mechanics of the bay, how deep and wide it is, the kind of water, why it’s even here, how long it has been here,” McCowan said. “We’ll talk about what lives in the water and why. Why do oysters and crabs grow here? Why not in the mountains of Pennsylvania? From that perspective it really does reinforce classroom science and ecology.”
He said the Echo Hill Outdoor School has something for everyone, from children to college students to families and even those who are avid outdoorsmen.
“We feel we can find great, positive things to do in the outdoors with anyone who comes here to be a student,” McCowan said.
He said the school has grown immensely from when it was founded in the 1970s. At that time, there were only eight staff members and about 2,000 students. The school only offered programs in the spring and fall.
McCowan said now there are between 22 and 30 teachers who range from people with teaching, history or English degrees to some from other countries.
He said the school helps people determine their ideal environment to be in terms of water, air and land.
“I think this is a part of their life experience of realizing the value of their environment, and developing some kind of ethic on how they value the environment,” he said. “You can only really value the environment by spending time there. Our program is here to help them discover there is value in understanding science and ecology and the history of what people have done and how people work with each other to achieve goals.”
For more information about the Echo Hill Outdoor School, go to www.ehos.org or call (410) 348-5880.