A Visit to Echo Hill Outdoor School

4th graders see the Chesapeake Bay through the eyes of two alumni. 

By Edith Zhang ’81 and Kathryn Bauman-Hill

A spring trip to Echo Hill Outdoor School has been a part of Sidwell Friends’ 4th grade program for many years. This year’s trip offered invaluable interdisciplinary connections between geography, the environment, and sustainability. This intersection of social studies, science, and Quaker values helps students develop empathy, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

Under the unifying theme of water, 4th grade bridges the local ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay with that of Ancient China. The adage, “those who control the water control the power,” was reinforced as we investigated how water control issues of the Potomac and the Min River relate. After returning from Echo Hill, students spent time writing about and developing solutions that address current pollution and water use issues on the Lower School campus.

Echo Hill’s philosophy includes empowering children to become more independent and to make positive choices, goals that are shared by our 4th grade team. Many of the activities our students engaged in over these three days require repeated failures in order to find success. Included in the program was a series of outdoor classes. Students shared their thoughts on the ecology classes:

Aqualogy was really fun because we caught many different animals and studied them. Then we would release them. I also liked it because I got to hold a couple of frogs, and I’ve never done that before in my life. We also caught an eel, which was from the Bermuda Triangle.

In Bay Studies we learned a lot about the ecosystem in the Bay and different types of fish and eels. Out on the boat, we learned about plankton and other organisms in the water. It was cool learning about a new way of catching fish by not using a fishing rod. We also learned about the food chain in the Chesapeake. The bigger fish eat the smaller fish, and the smaller fish eat the plankton. A lot of fish depend on the plankton for food. Plankton are algae and very little shrimp and plants and other small creatures. We also learned about how big the watershed is for the Chesapeake Bay and why it is important to protect it.

Other classes, such as Adventure 1 and Survival, highlighted team-building:

I learned that you had to have faith in your team. If you didn’t have faith and didn’t think they were capable, your team would not get anywhere. 

When working with a team, if you all don’t listen to each other, it doesn’t work.

Perspective-taking was another area of focus:

I think my perspective changed when I learned about light pollution and I learned that we were even polluting light, and to be honest, it made me a little embarrassed to be human.

I learned that just a couple of people with a little work can make a big difference and that you don’t have to do some huge project to keep the bay sustainable. You can start small and still make a difference.

Echo Hill: Part of the Sidwell Friends Family

Founded in 1972 by Peter Rice ’63, a Sidwell Friends lifer and son of former Lower School Principal Peter Rice Sr., Echo Hill Outdoor School is a regional leader in outdoor education. It has an experiential-based program encouraging children to become environmental stewards. Peter’s primary philosophy is that “the retention of environmental education and facts is more significant if the kids are having fun.” In a friendly setting with fun activities, he argues, students are “more likely to remember food chains and scientific facts.” He adds, “If we are successful and they love the Bay, swamp, and being outside, they will be good stewards.”

Peter’s experiences at Sidwell Friends, growing up on the top floor of Zartman House, helped shape his passion for outdoor education. [For more on the Rice family’s experience living in Zartman House, read Pauline Rice’s historical account.] At that time, Sidwell Friends was located all on one campus, and he fondly remembers woods with raccoons and possums where the baseball fields are now located. Dr. Jean Ashton and the inimitable Charlie Biggs, former Sidwell Friends science teachers, ignited his interest in science and nature. Peter was tasked with taking care of the campus animals on weekends, a job he treasured. Echo Hill Camp was originally purchased by Peter Rice Sr., whose dream was to run it as a family. Peter Jr. was ripe for the challenge, having studied outdoor education as both an undergraduate and graduate student. All three of Peter Rice Jr.’s children are continuing the family tradition.

Jimmy Stone '75, a Sidwell lifer, is a USCG licensed boat captain at Echo Hill Outdoor school and teaches Bay Studies classes as a Senior Educator. He started at Echo Hill camp as a 3rd grader and continued on to become a counselor and interned in environmental education as his SFS senior project. These collective experiences led him to major in Recreation and Leisure Services and inspired him to become a teacher. He worked as an environmental educator in the Middle School, and also led spelunking, canoeing, camping, and rock climbing trips as well as coached football and baseball. His brother-in-law is drama teacher Ed Crow.

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