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Grades 9-12
Using the Chesapeake Bay , the largest estuary in the United States, and its watershed as a model, this lesson will focus on how the sciences can identify clues about the health of the environment and the ways in which geography can help make connections between human actions and environmental conditions. Students will use online tools and resources to examine data concerning key indicators of the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the factors that affect them. They will examine how industrial and residential runoff affects the bay, identify the importance of underwater bay grasses, and describe how decreased oyster production in the bay both is caused by and contributes to poor water quality. By cross-referencing the data, students will piece together an overall "report card" for the Chesapeake Bay, and then compare their findings with those of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in its 2005 State of the Bay report. Students will learn about efforts to preserve and restore the bay's health, such as the Chesapeake Bay Program , a major federal-state restoration effort, and then apply what they have learned about identifying and solving problems to develop a local action plan for preserving or restoring a resource in their own communities.
Connections to the Curriculum:
Geography, environmental science, biology, marine biology
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 14: "How human actions modify the physical environment"
Standard 15: "How physical systems affect human systems"
Standard 18: "How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future"
Three to four hours

Materials Required:
Students will
  • find and interpret data regarding the health of the Chesapeake Bay and other natural resources;
  • use scientific evidence to evaluate different indicators of bay health;
  • identify human activities and other factors that contribute to watershed health issues;
  • use geographic skills to identify connections between indicators and the factors that influence them; and
  • develop a local action plan to improve the environmental health of a local resource.
Geographic Skills:
Asking Geographic Questions
Acquiring Geographic Information
Organizing Geographic Information
Answering Geographic Questions
Analyzing Geographic Information

S u g g e s t e d   P r o c e d u r e
Introduce students to the Chesapeake Bay by having them visit the National Geographic magazine feature, " Why Can't We Save the Bay? " Ask students to read the opening article and then explore the photo gallery and interactive map to identify some serious problems influencing the quality and future of the bay. Record student answers either on the board or an overhead projector transparency. In your discussion, be sure students understand the definitions of key terms , such as estuary, watershed , and ecosystem . Explain to students that they will be learning about the current state of the Chesapeake Bay and how scientists are working with other professionals and local activists, including many students like themselves, to reverse the decline in the watershed's health.
Activity 1: Introduction to the Chesapeake Bay Today
The current state of the Chesapeake Bay is intricately tied to its history. This first activity will provide students with some necessary background information about the history of the bay. Show students a map of the Chesapeake Bay region and ask them why they think the Chesapeake Bay is important to both the local communities on the bay and those in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Accept all reasonable answers and point out some of the environmental, economic, and cultural aspects of life in and around the bay. Then, have students visit National Geographic's Exploring the Chesapeake—Then and Now site and follow the "now" map tour to learn about some of the factors contributing to and affected by the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Ask students to examine the information presented on the site and in the maps to answer these questions (PDF, Adobe Acrobat Reader required). A teacher version (PDF, Adobe Acrobat Reader required) is also available to check for understanding.

Allow students to share their answers in group discussion, and point out that science and geography are important in identifying, understanding, and managing these issues.

Activity 2: Making Connections: Health Indicators in Chesapeake Bay
To understand the efforts of scientists to learn about and improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay, assign students the task of collecting information and data about the factors that impact the bay's health, both directly and indirectly. Direct students to these Web resources (PDF, Adobe Acrobat Reader required) to conduct their research and take notes. Have students work individually or in groups to identify as many indicators of ecosystem health as possible (at least eight). They should then fill in a chart (PDF, Adobe Acrobat Reader required) identifying each indicator or factor in the ecosystem's health and give a description of what the indicator is or does, a brief summary of the major issues related to it, the students' subjective rating of the current status of that indicator in the bay based on their research (letter grade from A - Excellent to F - Critical), and factors affecting the indicator's current status. A sample entry for nitrogen, along with names of a few other indicators students should research, are included in the chart.

Be sure students keep track of the sources they used in their research and to support their ratings. Students should print or bookmark visuals that help support and explain their findings, such as charts, graphs, and maps.

Have students present their findings to the rest of the class. Students should share their ratings and explain what scientific evidence they used to make their determinations. They should also reference a few key visuals that help illustrate their reports. Afterwards, discuss as a class why different students or student groups may have rated the indicators differently. Lead the class in considering how the maps and other geographical data they examined helped them see relationships between human actions and the environment, between the various indicators and the factors affecting them, and between the various regions of the bay watershed itself.

Activity 3: Making the Grade
Have students review the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 2005 State of the Bay report (PDF, Adobe Acrobat Reader required) and reflect on their findings as compared to the ratings they gave the various indicators. Explain to students that the scorecard reflects the rating of each indicator versus its ideal condition and whether each condition improved, regressed, or remained the same from 2004 to 2005. Have students compare the report's ratings to their ratings on their charts and then discuss their findings as a class. Ask the students if there were any data represented in the report card that they had not considered.

Making Local Connections
Divide students into small groups. Assign each group of students to collect information about their local watershed area and prepare a short oral presentation on the issue. Students should include cause-and-effect information regarding the overall health of the area in question. You may wish to use the same data collection sheet used in Activity 2 . Remind students to consider the information they discovered about problems with the Chesapeake Bay caused by actions and incidents hundreds of miles away. To highlight water quality issues, students may wish to refer to the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Atlas of America's Polluted Waters .

Have students explore the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Take Action Outdoor Activities , the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay's Watershed Protection and Partnerships projects , and the Chesapeake Bay Program's Schools Get Involved to see what types of restoration and preservation projects are happening in and around the bay.

Have students compare these initiatives with activities related to their local watershed area . Then, have students work together to design a local action project that can assist their targeted area. In areas where local preservation projects are difficult to find, work with students to contact the organizations listed in the Chesapeake resources for information on how to organize.

Ask students to share their impressions of the importance of science and geography in identifying, understanding, and managing environmental issues such as those they researched in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and their local project area. Ask them to explain why scientific evidence is a key component in trying to make changes that will positively affect the environment, and how that improvement relates to improved conditions in other aspects of life. Then discuss how geography can help make connections between human actions and environmental conditions.

Suggested Student Assessment:
Have students present and display their local project activity for the school or local community. Presentations should reflect an understanding of how scientific evidence can help raise awareness of issues and help people prioritize their efforts in managing those issues, as well as how geography can help make connections between the environment and people.
Extending the Lesson:
  • Innovative ideas are an important component to environmental action. One innovative idea currently being tested in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is the Grass Roofs Campaign . This project encourages local businesses to create gardens or grassy areas on the roofs of industrial and office buildings to reduce the amount of runoff into the watershed. Have students brainstorm other innovative ideas to directly address a local environmental issue.

  • Overharvesting has been identified as a key contributor to the decline in oyster populations. Students will have learned from their research, however, that there are other factors that contribute significantly to these declines. Have students read the National Geographic News article " Chesapeake Bay Watermen Question Limits on Crab Harvests " and " Overfishing Long Ago Tied to Modern Ecosystem Collapse ." Look for additional resources on this issue and organize a classroom debate about whether imposing fishing limits is the best way to resolve the ecosystem problem.

  • Help students learn more about how oysters are such an essential part of the Chesapeake Bay—not just from an economic standpoint, but more importantly from an environmental standpoint. Use the Maryland Sea Grant resource, Oysters & the Chesapeake in the Classroom , to learn about the anatomy, function, and filtering ability of oysters.

  • Join teachers participating in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Chesapeake Classrooms to share classroom resources, lesson and unit plans, current watershed information, and best practices. The program online is part of National Geographic's EdNet communities for educators.
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