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Baltimore Ecosystem Study partners with Baltimore City Public Schools

$1.2 million NSF award will integrate local data into chemistry curriculum. 

Through a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES) is partnering with Baltimore City Public Schools to transform the way that chemistry is taught in the city’s high schools. The innovative approach draws on data gathered by BES to convey how chemistry shapes the local environment.

Dr. Alan Berkowitz, Head of Education at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, is leading the effort. Berkowitz says, “This represents a major milestone in our work with Baltimore City Public Schools. For the first time, we are developing a unit for a required high school science class that will include Baltimore Ecosystem Study data, research methods, and local applications. Every student in the city will be learning about chemistry through the lens of this research.”

Founded in 1997, the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES) is a National Science Foundation-funded Long Term Ecological Research Site. Under the Cary Institute’s direction, it has emerged as one of the world’s most extensive investigations of the ecology of a city. To-date, more than 100 biologists, social scientists, planners, and educators are working together to advance a more sustainable Baltimore.

The newly designed Integrating Chemistry and Earth science (ICE) unit infuses Earth science into chemistry at the high school level; it will be taught to every student taking chemistry this year. ICE aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), adopted by the state of Maryland in 2013, which are designed to help students practice ‘real science’ and explore connections across scientific disciplines.

Joshua Gabrielse, Science Coordinator for the Baltimore City Public Schools, is leading the curriculum development of the ICE unit. “The Next Generation Science Standards require the inclusion of Earth/Space Science in the traditional high school science curriculum. We are meeting this challenge by embedding Earth science in new biology, physics, and chemistry courses.”  

Baltimore-focused lessons developed by ICE project partners, which include Baltimore City Public Schools and George Washington University, encourage students to explore BES data and gather first-hand observations. Topics to be explored will include: acid rain and the weathering of city sidewalks; local fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels and correlations with rising ocean acidity; urban heat island effects and the influence of green spaces; and impacts of human activities, such as road salting, on freshwater streams. 


Bess Caplan, an educator with the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, explains, “Our hope is that by anchoring Earth science lessons in Baltimore research, the content will be more relevant and engaging to students. In the process of learning chemistry, they will gain a greater understanding of both Earth science and local environmental concerns.”

“Students walk on these weathered sidewalks every day. They pass patches of vegetation that help cool the city and street gutters that carry pollutants into Baltimore waterways. It’s important that students understand these small-scale ecological processes happening right in their neighborhoods – not only to help them relate to school lessons, but to hopefully inspire a sense of local stewardship,” Berkowitz adds.

Dr. Jonathon Grooms, Professor of Curriculum and Pedagogy at George Washington University, will lead efforts to assess how teachers enact ICE and what students learn during the experience. Grooms notes, “This is an exploratory project that should help us understand how students engage in cross-disciplinary science lessons and whether this is an effective approach to teaching these concepts.”

Caplan is recruiting seven Baltimore City chemistry teachers to help roll out the ICE curriculum. The two-year commitment involves participating in afterschool professional development, providing feedback on lessons, and assisting with revisions to the lessons and curriculum. Perks include a stipend, in-person support from BES and the school system, supplies, and engagement with a dynamic professional community of educators and scientists.

Martin Schmidt, a geoscience teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills in suburban Baltimore, is an ICE partner teacher. He is quick to note how Earth science topics such as the weathering of rocks were already being integrated into high school chemistry courses to meet NGSS goals. He explains, “The ICE program helps expose students to more tangible ‘real world’ questions that connect broader subjects to local and regional science. By tapping into BES data, students can also do more data analysis to reach their own conclusions – another NGSS goal.”

Lessons learned while implementing the ICE science curriculum in Baltimore will be relevant elsewhere. Berkowitz explains, “The instructional tools and supports we are developing will be adaptable to a broad range of science topics and regional settings. ICE will serve as a model for other districts interested in the infusion approach to teaching high school Earth science.”

Caplan says, “We’re excited for the opportunity to share BES research with the students who call Baltimore home. Essentially, BES scientists have turned their city into a giant experiment, making the students direct participants. We hope that these locally-focused lessons will help students feel connected to this important work, which they – likely without realizing – already are a part of.”

 If you are a high school chemistry teacher in the Baltimore City Public School District and would like more information about this exciting new project, please contact Bess Caplan via email at

The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies is one of the world's leading independent environmental research organizations. Areas of expertise include disease ecology, forest and freshwater health, climate change, urban ecology, and invasive species. Since 1983, Cary Institute scientists have produced the unbiased research needed to inform effective management and policy decisions.

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