As a baby, Amanda Rockler’s first word was “water.” For the past couple of decades, it’s also been her life.
Rockler is a watershed specialist with Maryland Sea Grant Extension, based in Montgomery County. The position covers the suburban areas around Washington, DC, and allows her to keep her focus on water—keeping it clean, finding ways to filter stormwater runoff and increase tree canopies, and preventing pollution from microplastics and other common household products that can disrupt Chesapeake Bay ecosystems.
“As the extension agent, our name is not always in the forefront. We are the people who fill the gaps in the communities,” Rockler said. “With us, it’s always a team effort. We’re always trying to partner with people to do the work and reduce duplications in effort.”
Collaborating with a team of watershed specialists throughout the region, Rockler helps inform and encourage residents’ efforts to clean their water, ranging from rain barrel workshops and rain garden plantings to larger-scale stormwater restoration projects. She was instrumental in expanding the Watershed Stewards Academy (WSA), which Maryland Sea Grant Extension specialists support in Howard, Cecil, St. Mary’s, and Harford counties, and the metro DC region. It is among several such academies run by nonprofits, counties, and Extension; Anne Arundel’s Department of Public Works started the first one in 2008 and continues to run it, while Extension’s began in 2011. The Anacostia Watershed Society runs the DC one, with support from Rockler.
The WSA program lasts up to 18 months and includes more than 40 hours of classroom and field training and project implementation experience. Field training includes learning how to install best management practices, while classroom training includes lessons about stormwater flow, permitting, and project management. Participants also complete a capstone stormwater restoration project that includes a site assessment, community engagement, implementation activities, and a maintenance plan.
Rockler also collaborated with environmental groups and governmental organizations to create and expand a certification program for green landscaping, called the Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional certification. The program, now in its fifth year, allows landscapers to become certified on proper installation, design, and maintenance of small-scale conservation landscape and stormwater practices.
Currently, she is working closely with an undergraduate student who is conducting a literature review of what’s known about the tiny plastic particles that are getting into waterways. This microplastics work is just beginning, but Rockler said she’s excited about the collaborative aspect of it.
Rockler enjoys working across disciplines with researchers on various projects. She is the co-principal investigator on a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant that is part of the Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNHS) Program and builds on previous Environmental Protection Agency funding her team received. (Maryland Sea Grant’s J. Adam Frederick is also on the grant; see “Into Focus”) The work examines ways to fuse social and natural sciences, motivating people to implement stormwater management practices that will ultimately result in a cleaner environment.
It’s work Rockler has been gravitating toward since she earned her undergraduate environmental science degree at the University of Colorado-Boulder and realized she “didn’t want to be in someone’s lab necessarily.” After graduation, she moved to New York City to teach at an environmental education center. She then moved to the Washington, DC, area and did stormwater work for the City of Rockville.
In 2009, Rockler earned her master’s degree in sustainable landscape design from the George Washington University, and in some ways, she’s been furthering her education ever since.
She takes one class a semester within the University of Maryland System, ranging from research methodology to applied entomology—“I’m interested in ticks and mosquitoes”—and also earned a graduate certificate in sustainability and behavior change from the University of California San Diego. Rockler is now pursuing a doctorate through the University of Maryland’s Marine Estuarine Environmental Sciences graduate program, studying environmental impacts through a social lens. Much of her focus will be looking at what motivates people to put certain practices in place to reduce pollution and clean local waterways.
“It’s what I do every day anyway,” she said. “I thought this was the time to incorporate school into that.”