3 place-based learning models that connect students to their environments

Educators say students are more engaged when they can make a difference in their communities
By: | November 24, 2019
Students at Oregon’s Hood River Middle School take placed-based learning electives in which they mountain bike, windsurf and explore the region’s gorges.Students at Oregon’s Hood River Middle School take placed-based learning electives in which they mountain bike, windsurf and explore the region’s gorges.

Picture the various “placed-based learning” lessons you might have received if your high school had been on the grounds of the local zoo.

Students at the place-based-education-driven School of Environmental Studies (SES) in suburban Minneapolis don’t have to use their imaginations—at least, not when it comes to trying to save endangered mussels.

Seniors at SES, a magnet that serves 11th- and 12th-grade students in Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools, study mussels with staff of the Minnesota Zoo each year. Then, they create public service announcements to raise awareness about the species’ important role in the ecosystem, Principal Lauren Trainer says.


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“The zoo knows people protect what they care about,” Trainer says. “So the students have to figure out how to generate enthusiasm for mussels, which aren’t cute and fuzzy.”

The zoo project is just one of the latest approaches to place-based learning, in which educators across the country are using the natural world right outside their buildings to make learning more relevant and engaging.

Beyond the zoo’s placed-based learning program, SES students adopt suburban lakes and ponds to study water quality. They don waders and board canoes to do research with city naturalists, and then analyze their findings in lengthy academic papers that are presented to local officials, Trainer says.

The students complete their time at SES with a capstone project, working with a local organization on an environmental service initiative. “A lot of the time, environmental issues can be a big downer,” Trainer says. “This helps them integrate hope, activism and leadership.”

Place-based learning spawns new stories

Place-based learning can play a pivotal role in urban environments, says Ethan Lowenstein, a professor of curriculum and instruction at Eastern Michigan University and director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition.

It can connect students to their natural environment in an era when many young people become engrossed in—and isolated by—their mobile devices, says Lowenstein, who is guiding 30 schools in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti in the implementation of place-based learning.


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“This is especially important for students who live in poverty or who live in areas where the media is telling them deficit stories about their communities,” Lowenstein says. “We’re helping young people become authors of their own communities’ stories, and to use math, English and science to take civic action in a meaningful way.”

In Ypsilanti, for example, place-based learning has students studying ways to make their neighborhoods more resilient to flooding, which has become an increasing problem as global warming produces heavier rains.

A group of high school students used tools from i-Tree to calculate where to plant trees, and which varieties, to help grounds crews control flooding on their campus.

“One of the strengths of place-based education is that an interdisciplinary approach is a necessary component,” Lowenstein says. “We live in a really complicated era, where if you don’t understand complex systems, you’re not going to be prepared.”

A local learning lens

Students at Oregon’s Hood River Middle School live in a place where recreation is paramount. So they can take placed-based learning electives in which they mountain bike, windsurf and explore the region’s gorges.

While place-based learning allows Hood River Middle School students to enjoy the Great Outdoors, they also study the cultures of their region in the classroom.

While place-based learning allows Hood River Middle School students to enjoy the Great Outdoors, they also study the cultures of their region in the classroom.

In the classroom, all students take a course in food and conservation science course, which requires them to solve local ecological problems, often in the school’s greenhouse.

Classes have researched ways to grow food in an environment that sees extreme cold and extreme heat, says Principal Brent Emmons, whose school is part of the Hood River County School District.


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Students have built specialized “climate batteries” and experimented with aquaponic systems that retain heat, he says.

Place-based learning should also incorporate the culture of a region, Emmons says.

Hood River Middle School students have studied the stories and artwork of local Native American tribes through the Columbia River Confluence Project. In English language arts, students are learning about how the region’s population of Japanese Americans were taken to internment camps during World War II.

“Making learning relevant is one of the arts of education,” Emmons says. “That disconnect that particularly secondary students have with finding meaning in their learning? Much of that can be solved by saying we are learning things through the lens of our community.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer