The state board of education voted Tuesday to require that all Maryland public schools provide a comprehensive environmental education program within their current curriculum.
The new regulations will not force students to pass an additional test to graduate, but will require that they learn about environmental science issues, state education officials said.
The new regulations require lessons on subjects such as the movement of matter and energy through interactions of Earth's systems, the interdependence of humans and organisms in different populations, communities and ecosystems, and how natural events and human activities affect human health.
It also will focus heavily on the positive and negative impacts of human activities on Earth's natural systems and resources.
"The student will make decisions that demonstrate understandings of natural communities and the ecological, economic, political and social systems of human communities, and examine how their personal and collective actions affect the sustainability of these interrelated systems," the newly approved regulations state.
Cecil County Public Schools began working on an environmental science curriculum and high school course last year through a pilot program, said Carolyn Teigland, the county's associate superintendent of education services.
She said officials are working on full implementation of that curriculum this year.
Currently, county high school students are required to complete three of six different science subject courses. While the county offers environmental science and honors environmental science classes, they are optional courses.
"Our pre-high school education already has environmental science principles built in its courses," Teigland said. "We also provide out-of-school learning experiences through our partnerships with Fair Hill Nature Center and NorthBay."
Teigland said she understands why some might be wary of making environmental sciences a required part of the curriculum.
"For school systems that do not have a standalone course, then it comes with a cost," she said.
The resources needed to create a feasible environmental science class might not be widely available, especially given the recent trend toward reductions in funding, Teigland said.
"The sciences are not as flexible as other subjects," she said. "You can't just get a chemistry teacher to teach environmental science because chances are they won't be certified in that subject, especially at the high school level, where more intimate knowledge is needed.
Teigland noted that state is not requiring a standalone class.
"But in that sense, we're lucky to already be ahead of the new requirements," she said. "With our location on the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay, though, the county believes it has a responsibility that students leave school with a knowledge of their local environment and their impact on it."
Assistant State Superintendent of Education Mary Gable said the department received 187 comments during a public comment period for the new regulations, with 180 supporting the proposal.