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Urban Ecology Class Seeks to Restore Creek



At the front of the classroom, 12 students sit rapt as representatives from Casey Trees teach them about “the wonderful world of phenology,” the timing of seasonal events. Such presentations are typical of Steve Dryden’s Urban Ecology class, which has had several visits from local environmental experts, activists, government employees and non-profits.

Urban Ecology is a SCIMATEC class but it is really part environmental science, part DC history part biology, part geography and more. It focuses on the part of Soapstone Creek right by Wilson’s aquatic center, which is an estuary to Rock Creek, and what happens to creeks in the city in general. The class is only Dryden’s most recent environmental project.

“Last year I was working on a project with Whole Foods…and Whole Foods was interested in doing a project nearby to help the environment and I said, ‘Let’s look at this part of the creek near Wilson’,” says Dryden. He then got in touch with Academic Coordinator Alex Wilson who suggested he teach the class himself.

Dryden is clearly the man for the job. While he is not a teacher by training, he’s clearly very passionate about the subject matter. Dryden started off as a journalist, writing for several newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, but had a change of career about 20 years ago when he went to work for the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase.

“I learned a lot about this area of urban-suburban ecology and I was able to basically start a whole new career advocating for the restoration of the environment,” says Dryden. “Once you learn about the environmental situation in Washington, it becomes very clear that environmental work is more important than anything I could do in journalism.”

Now, Dryden is a busy man; in addition to teaching at Wilson he is the program manager for Friends of Peirce Mill, an organization that works to restore the mill to working condition and coordinate school visits. Despite having his hand in many projects, Dryden isn’t overwhelmed.

“They all sort of fit together because they’re all concerned with Rock Creek,” he says. “It’s a very busy life but it’s enjoyable.”

Part of the goal of the class is to develop a plan to restore Soapstone Creek, which currently “is not a very welcoming place for people or animals.”

“The creek has been here forever,” says Dryden as he pulls out maps of the area from 1864 and 1884 which both show the Soapstone Creek running through the heart of Tenleytown.

The class started off the year by making detailed maps of the area they intend to clean up, with information on tree species in the area, surrounding buildings and where the water comes in from Rock Creek Park. It will end with each student drawing up a plan for suggestions for cleaning up creek and preventing it from deteriorating again in the future. Students spent April 22, Earth Day, cleaning up the creek and the surrounding area.

But in between students have studied everything from the migration patterns of the Woodthrush, official bird of DC which travels from Central America to breed and forms an important link between our region and the rest of the Americas, to how the civil war and other historical events have affected Fort Reno. Students also tested the water spewing from the pipe of the creek for certain chemicals, water pressure and change in color, odor and temperature.

Dryden is hopeful that the class will not only have a lasting impact on the creek and local ecology, but will also be a class again next year. He encourages any interested students to consider Urban Ecology when signing up for their classes for next year.

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