Spotlights
Face of the Week: Rebecca Ward of the BCPS Office of Science, K-12
Team BCPS is made up of thousands of accomplished and interesting students, employees, and community supporters. “Face of the Week” introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS such an amazing mosaic of talent, caring, and commitment.
12/19/2016

Face of the Week: Rebecca Ward of the BCPS Office of Science, K-12

Consider what Rebecca Ward does daily to help introduce Baltimore County’s Grade 5 students to the world around them.

As one of seven outdoor science instructors for BCPS, she might find herself in sub-freezing temperatures this month, wading into the freezing waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Another day might find her sizing up the discovery of a fearsome looking hellgrammite – picture a big, crawly centipede with pincers – which she describes matter-of-factly as the nymph stage of a Dobson fly.

Hers is hardly the picture of a conventional classroom. But none of it bothers Ward; on the contrary, she revels in exploring the marshes and thickets of Baltimore County’s shorelines, and in showing 100 children a day how to do the same.

“I have the perfect job,” she says. For nearly the entire school year – except for the coldest winter months – she spends five days a week at either Marshy Point Nature Center in Chase or Miami Beach Park in Bowleys Quarters, and by June she will have taught every BCPS Grade 5 student through the school system’s own Eco-Trekkers program.

“I’m honestly disappointed at the end of the day when I have to come home.”

That’s saying something for the 29-year-old Ward, who has experienced more extreme adventures than introducing elementary school students to bugs. Like the day she mushed a brace of sled dogs across a frozen Alaskan lake. Or the night a grizzly bear licked her face through an opening in her tent at Yosemite National Park, attracted by the nearly imperceptible scent of a tube of Chap-Stik. “Oh my, yes,” she says now about the memory, “I thought I was dead.”

 Alaskan idyll

It’s a long road that led Ward from her childhood home in Towson to the backcountry of Alaska and back again. Through Stoneleigh Elementary and Dumbarton Middle, she developed a love of nature early, especially inspired by the backpacking hikes she went on with her dad, Jay Ward.

“She always wanted to go hiking, even from the time she was little,” says her father, who is principal at The Crossroads Center in White Marsh. “She’d say, ‘Wake me up early so we can see all the animals.’ It was always a special experience for both of us.”

Like his daughter, Jay Ward believes in the lifelong lessons nature provides, especially for children. “It’s important, not only from an ecological standpoint but from the spiritual way nature gives back to you, too. I’m proud of her.”

Ward still remembers the day she went on her own Eco-Trekkers field trip to Day’s Cove in the Gunpowder Falls State Park; she went canoeing with classmates from Stoneleigh. “It was the best day of my life as a fifth-grader,” she says.

Art was a passion for the young Ward, too, and she graduated from the visual arts prime at George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology. The Maryland Institute College of Art was the next logical step, but Ward remembers feeling antsy after her sophomore year. Studios seemed confining, and after hearing from a friend who worked as a park ranger, she applied for a summer job at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. “If I wanted an adventure,” she says, “I wanted it to be as far away as possible.”

Even after a summer spent selling bus tour and campground tickets, she was hooked. She returned the next summer and worked her way to being a backcountry ranger. Despite feeling a bit “burnt out” at MICA, she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and promptly headed back to Denali. Settling in a cabin with an outhouse in the old logging town of Healy – population 1,021 – she spent a blissful three years working at the park and immersing herself in the Alaskan wilderness.

In summer, she babysat teams of sled dogs for friends, running with the pack through woods for exercise. A vegetarian, Ward learned how to cope with three-hour trips to the nearest grocery store. In March – the best time to see them – she marveled at the Northern Lights. And in winter, when temperatures outside plummeted to as low as 50-below, friends lent her their mukluk boots and other warm winter gear.

And in Alaska, Ward had the opportunity to repay her dad for their many childhood forays into the forest. On two extended backpacking trips into remote parts of the park, she and her father saw big bears, wolf packs, and caribou, and once hiked to the top of Muldrow Glacier to drink water that fell as rain or snow more than 10,000 years ago. 

Once, she remembers picking up an unwanted companion at the end of a three-day solo backpacking trip into the wilderness. After a bear-resistant container broke, a young grizzly bear began following her moving closer and closer with each mile. Ward spread her arms and did what she could to deter the bear’s interest; if only she could make it to a road where she could wait for a passing bus to pick her up. But the bear kept close, sometimes drawing to within 10 feet of her.

“Finally, I was near the road but first I had to go through a stand of thick willows,” Ward says. “I started in, and the bear was right behind me, when suddenly something crashed through the willows nearby, maybe a moose or something. Whatever it was, it scared the bear away.”

Back to BCPS

While most visitors to Denali tended to be adults, Ward also knew she wanted to work with children. So in 2012, she learned of an opening with BCPS and applied. Rebecca Ward was coming home.

She began her job as outdoor educator bringing with her many of the lessons learned in Denali, chief among them the concept of “Leave No Trace,” the idea that visitors to an ecosystem must leave it as pristine and untrammeled they found it.

With the Eco-Trekkers program, Ward educates groups of children about shoreline, wetlands, and forest or meadow ecosystems during the students’ field trip, helping them understand the patterns of nature and the interconnectedness of everything in it. She covers “Leave No Trace” ethics but also offers practical advice about things like poison ivy and ticks.

“I love seeing them explore things you never thought they would…,” she says. “It’s their discovery, and they are proud of themselves for finding these insects or plants we’re talking about.”

In spring 2017, BCPS begins to phase out the 13-year-old Eco-Trekkers unit for a more student-centered outdoor science program called “BioBlitz.” Also developed by BCPS, the BioBlitz curriculum will focus on student-led collection and identification of eco-system elements in parks throughout the county, including at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Oregon Ridge.

“We’ve tried (BioBlitz) a couple of times with students, and they have loved it,” Ward says. “Even the teachers have said it’s not as staged as Eco-Trekkers, where we would talk about something but we wouldn’t go find it. Now we will.”

Nature remains the constant

Today, Ward shares both her knowledge and love of nature as well as her artistic talents. During the winter months when she’s not in the field, she visits schools with lessons on making “fish prints” or reef balls for reef restoration in the bay. She loves her job, she says, because “it gives every child a chance to shine” and because it helps them understand their place in the world.

“With the kids, it’s special,” she says. “A crack in the sidewalk can be an ecosystem for a child. They want to discover new things, and I hope I’ve been able to show them how to take a second look.”

On weekends, Ward works as a ranger at Marshy Point, and she is keeping her hand in art by helping to create a mural in the park’s auditorium building. She’d like to travel to Hawaii – “I get a little stir-crazy sometimes” – and she’s thinking about applying for a ranger’s job next summer at Assateague National Seashore. She’s working toward her art education certification at Towson University.

And, as always, nature remains the constant. From Stoneleigh to Healy to Marshy Point, Ward says, “I’ve always felt like being outdoors was my safer place.

“It’s humbling, too, because it puts things into perspective. I go there to get out of my own head sometimes,” she adds. “It has taught me, and I think teaches children, that there are bigger things out there than us.”

Do you know of a special person who would be a good candidate for the BCPS “Face of the Week”? Let us know! Send their name, contact information, and what makes them special to cherndon@bcps.org.  

For more photos, visit the BCPS Flickr site at www.flickr.com/photos/bcps/albums/72157677920094285.   

For more information about programming and curriculum from the BCPS Office of Science, K-12, or for information about outdoor science programs, please call the Office of Science at 443-809-4251.

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