By George (Eddie) Waldron
Outdoor Resource Teacher
Claud E. Kitchens Outdoor School at Fairview
Washington County Public Schools, MD

Ask any student who has visited the Claud E. Kitchens Outdoor School at Fairview in Clear Spring, MD for a favorite memory, and many will recount the climb up the 104-foot fire tower. Ask them what they learned from the experience, and you are likely to get a blank stare. Why do we even have a fire tower at a mountain-based Nature Center? This gem once existed as an active fire tower on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but upon being decommissioned, it somehow came into the possession of the Washington County Public School System. For 40 or so years it has been a rite of passage for thousands of local Grade 5 students. You go to Fairview, and you climb the fire tower just because!

How could we, as teachers, add purpose to this experience? My colleagues and I wanted to use this valuable resource to enrich student learning and support our Maryland State Learning Standards. It didn’t take much to realize that the incredible view from the top, which includes being able to see four states, the Great Cumberland Valley, the Appalachian Mountains, and the Blue Ridge Mountains from the tower’s apex held the answer.

Teaching Environmental Science in Maryland means helping our students understand the rich connection we have to the Chesapeake Bay and the need to protect this important resource. Working together, the Fairview Team developed a lesson to focus on the impact geology has on the flow of water throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed in our immediate region and downstream. The climb up the fire tower is the first activity and sets the stage for developing student awareness.

Students view a local topographical map from the top of the tower and make connections between the map and their firsthand observations. By observing the map and its elevation markings along with gaps in the mountains, low areas where streams pass, and rolling hills in the Washington County countryside, they obtain a real sense of the geology of our area. Students also look at other maps that prominently feature regional waterways to understand that the downward slope of the elevation of Western Maryland’s mountains to the Chesapeake Bay really means that millions are connected by water in nature.

While on the tower, we ask students to reflect on the many ways they observe humans utilizing the land from the tower’s vantage point. Students see numerous farms, schools, homes, businesses, athletic fields, interstates and highways, construction sites and they even frequently hear trains passing. This is a critical idea as this lesson requires students to develop a claim about local human impact on the environment after doing a stream study at Toms Run, the stream that runs through the Fairview property.

What have we learned as a group of teachers?  Look beyond the structure and its original design or purpose. What other learning goal or standard can be met with that pond, that pavilion, that meadow, that block of trees, that patch of lawn, or whatever you have to work with if you were to just ask ‘how else?’.

Now when we question our Fairview students about what they learned from the Fire Tower experience, the responses are rich, meaningful and show a sense of citizen awareness.

Looking north from atop the Fire Tower at Claud E. Kitchens Outdoor at Fairview