A highlight in any educator’s life is a random encounter with a former student, now an adult, who shares how that educator influenced their life for the better. For Joe Howard M.Ed. ’56, this is a common occurrence. As the founder of Montgomery County Public Schools’ Outdoor Education Program, which celebrated its 60th anniversary this past fall, Howard has had a potentially life-changing impact on hundreds of thousands of students.
At age 93, Howard is still an environmental educator, leading popular walking tours to some of Montgomery County, Maryland’s oldest trees. On a recent tour, a participant shared fond memories of enjoying outdoor ed as a sixth grader nearly half a century ago. And at a recent medical appointment, a health care provider enthusiastically gushed to Howard about how much she had loved outdoor ed. A second provider at the same appointment reminisced about his own adventures in the program and shared that his children have had wonderful outdoor ed experiences, as well.
“It’s so funny,” said Howard. “I haven’t really settled into that mindset that [outdoor ed has touched] a whole couple of generations of people.”
MCPS’s Outdoor Education Program is offered to all sixth graders–12,000 this school year, and over 500,000 since the program’s inception. These students spend three days and two nights immersed in the outdoors, searching streams for macroinvertebrates, hiking through forested trails, assessing the health of the watershed, learning about humans’ impact on the environment, and stargazing and gathering around campfires at night. Many students remember it as a highlight of their school careers and a formative experience–sometimes their first time away from home, and an opportunity to make new friends and bond with old ones. Some credit outdoor ed with pointing them toward careers in environmental science.
The program traces its roots back to Four Corners Elementary School, where Howard served as principal in the 1960s. A teacher approached him with the idea of building a nature trail in the small wooded area next to the school. Howard, who had created an outdoor classroom as principal at another elementary school in Talbot County, Maryland, agreed.
In both schools, students took an active role in constructing the outdoor educational areas and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. This piqued Howard’s interest in outdoor education. That summer, he traveled around the state learning about existing outdoor education programs, and worked with colleagues to establish MCPS’s first outdoor education program at Four Corners Elementary School in fall 1963.
“We explored what we thought we could teach better outdoors than in a classroom,” Howard said.
The program was, and still is, based around existing content in the MCPS sixth grade curriculum. Ecosystems are a major focus, but Howard and his team also structured the interdisciplinary program to include local Maryland history, astronomy and literacy content, with students journaling every day and writing letters home. Many of these same elements remain part of the program today.
By 1964, the program had expanded to two schools, and it soon went countywide. Howard eventually transitioned from school principal to full-time supervisor of environmental education for MCPS. In 1974, Montgomery County completed construction of the Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center, which houses much of MCPS’s outdoor ed programming today.
When MCPS first acquired the ten acres of land that became the Smith Center, it was a field devoid of trees. “In my mind’s eye, when we were dreaming about [a permanent outdoor education facility], it was always in the woods,” Howard said. So he set about acquiring trees from local nurseries whenever the opportunity arose, and planting them on the site. Today, the Smith Center is home to 60 species of trees–and many of the individual trees Howard and his team planted are still standing.
Howard put the same dedication into developing a multitude of learning environments at the Smith Center, which still exist today–wind turbines and a solar school house where educators teach about sustainable energy, a planetarium to facilitate astronomy lessons, a goat pen and chicken coop where students learn about agriculture, pavilions where kids encounter diamondback terrapins and other Maryland wildlife, and a “confidence course” where students use teamwork and problem-solving skills to confront challenges and scale various obstacles.
Thirty-five years after Howard’s retirement, the outdoor education program is still going
strong, inspiring a love for nature and a passion for environmental stewardship in a new generation of sixth graders.
A mother once showed Howard a letter that her son wrote to her from outdoor ed. “He wrote, ‘We’re not just having fun up here. We’re learning a lot, too. That’s how they trick you. They teach you and you don’t know it,’” Howard recalled. “That’s the secret. The more you can involve kids in their studies, the more they’ll learn and remember.”