The Impact of Global Climate Change in Severn's Backyard
From drama productions in the stone amphitheater to team-building exercises on the challenge course, teachers and students use the James M. Stine Environmental Center in many ways. But that is only part of the value it provides our school. Situated along the Severn River, the center is home to a diverse selection of native tree and plant species. It is a rich carbon sink that offsets some of our community's carbon footprint. But as climate change progresses and sea levels rise, the center is vulnerable. To explore what that might mean for our community, our Upper School Climate Science class conducted a in-depth study, bringing their understanding of global climate change home to our backyard.
Creating the Curriculum
New this year and developed by Ms. Young, Climate Science is an inquiry-based course in which students discover the scientific, social, and political aspects of climate change and the challenges that it poses to the global environment. Ms. Young recently completed her master's degree in Marine Estuarine Environmental Science and focused her graduate work on the relationship between climate change and nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. After speaking with several students about these topics, she was eager to create a class that brings together her area of scientific expertise and the growing interests of our students.
"My goal is not to tell them that climate change is happening. I want them to develop their own conclusions by looking at data and evaluating research. I also want them to be effective communicators and to be able to address common arguments about climate change scientifically. There is a big divide now. Some people don't buy into climate change because either the communication isn't out there or it's not up to par. So learning communication skills is as important as the science itself." — Ms. Young
In addition to collecting and analyzing their own data for this project, students read and critiqued articles from scientific journals and IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports, and created models to examine concepts like the greenhouse effect, anthropogenic vs. natural changes in climate, the causes of sea level rise, the efficacy of alternative energy sources, and more. Three primary inquiries framed their exploration of these topics in the center.
Is the Stine Center Effective as a Carbon Sink?
A carbon sink is any environmental area that helps decrease the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Using a protocol from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the class conducted an inventory of Stine's trees, counting a population of over 700. They measured the diameters of sample trees, used an allometric equation to determine the mass of those samples, and plugged that data into the National Tree Benefit Calculator to determine how many pounds of carbon a given tree absorbs annually. They then scaled the sample data to represent the entire 3-acre center.
What Can Stine Tell Us About Climate Change Now?
Leaves falling from trees is part of the overall carbon cycle and is an indicator of seasonal climate change, such as a longer or shorter growing season. The class recorded leaf fall by marking branches and noting the change in color and number of leaves from October through November. They used that data, along with published scientific research, to explore how changes in growing season could impact the health of the trees and the amount of greenhouse gas the center can absorb. Our students also submitted their findings to Harvard as part of a long-term data series involving multiple schools in the Northeast.
How Might Sea Level Rise Impact Stine and Severn?
The class explored typical causes for sea level rise in Maryland, including land sinkage and warming, before creating a visualization about the Stine Center. Using ArcGIS, database-driven online mapping software used by civil engineers and scientists worldwide, the class developed interactive maps of Stine to simulate potential changes over the next several decades. They concluded that because the center isn't directly on the water, it isn't in immediate danger. But by the year 2050, it will be. When sea levels rise to that point, we will likely lose a portion of the center.
A Story With an Uncertain Ending
Because this is an inquiry-based class, Ms. Young couldn't predict the exact outcome for her students. She gave them the tools and techniques to conduct a scientific study and present their work, but the story they told was all theirs. In the culminating presentation, the class of five seniors demonstrated their mastery of the research process and their ability to communicate each element as part of a bigger picture, one that affects us all. Excerpted from Andrew Bond '21's portion of the presentation,
"As this project evolved, one concern about Stine has been asked, 'Is it enough?' While the leaf drop data may resemble previous years, and the sea level rise data shows the fate of Stine decades from now, the impacts of climate change are very much our current crisis. We may not see it now but the Stine's effectiveness as a carbon sink may diminish as our climate changes. On top of that, we are predicted to lose parts of Stine as the sea level rises. If Severn's goal is to reach net-zero emissions (which would be great) there need to be more efforts to cut back on energy consumption, increase the area of Stine, or pursue other alternatives to combat climate change."
Teaching Beyond the Typical
We challenge our students to think critically about important issues, explore new interests, and consider how to make positive change in the world. Climate Science is only one example of how our teachers infuse passion and expertise into their lessons, creating tailored learning experiences above and beyond what you might find in a typical high school classroom. With projects that are relevant to their lives, our students learn how to work as scholars, develop unique ideas, and communicate with both clarity and confidence.