Place-Based Education Symposium: Communities as Learning Environments

As the emergence of personalized learning, project-based learning, and deeper learning increases, the time is right to connect learning to communities in authentic and meaningful ways. A place-based education approach can connect learning models, increase the power of our educational system, and provide a foundation for a thriving democracy.

A recent staff symposium at Teton Science Schools, where place-based education is at the core of our mission, exemplified the depth and breadth of this approach. The symposium was the result of eager staff and an innovation fund to bring good ideas to fruition. A variety of presentations supported key components of the PBE approach.

1. Connection and relevance: Learning is grounded in local communities. Symposium presentations connected to the fundamental constructs of ecological, political, economic, and social communities. The Journeys School faculty shared a project that connected an elementary school inquiry into food insecurity in social studies and science classes with research and work with the local food bank and homeless shelter to understand the concept locally and globally. Field Education programs shared projects they conduct with visiting schools to connect watershed science, water quality testing, and scientific research through actual field research. Both curricula enable personalized, student-centered learning projects focused on student interests.

2. Partnerships and permeability: Place-based education relies on strong permeability between educational organizations and community partners. Students from the Graduate Program shared outcomes from a course on Social-Ecological System Dynamics in which they used community interviews to examine resource management of mountain lions, grizzly bear, and sage grouse. Federal and state officials, gas field employees, ranchers, and conservationists provided context both in and out of the classroom to help students design specific solutions to these management challenges. Consistent with this theme was a presentation on a pilot virtual place-based school that uses technology (as a design partner with Motivis Learning) to bring local learning across the world through micro-school models and virtual delivery.

3. Inquiry and design: Inquiry and design are core components of Teton Science Schools’ framework for education. To celebrate creativity and innovation in the northern Rockies, Teton Science Schools hosts the Jackson Hole Mini-Maker Faire. In sharing the project, staff focused on creating a mindshift in learning environments to allow each student to become a designer and innovator, supporting the development of agency in all learners. Partnered with a number of local organizations, including Silicon Couloir, a non-profit promoting the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region, the maker-faire focuses on the need to bring design principles into local learning communities. Many teaching tools and curriculum examples focused on design were featured at the Symposium, including novel teaching of scientific inquiry through card-tricks and investigating space-debris volumes in mathematics.

4. Student-centered: The most favorable outcomes in learning and engagement emerge through student-centered and personalized learning. Providing opportunities in this area is critical to the success of a place-based education approach. At the Symposium, a Journeys School student presented his final 10th grade project in which he designed a digital tour of the school campus using the open-source ArisGames platform, while a Field Education instructor shared his experiences implementing student-centered learning through a combination of the BEETLES curriculum, NGSS standards, and local, place-based curriculum.

5. Interdisciplinary: Place-based education creates interdisciplinary learning experiences to increase authenticity. Journeys School high school faculty shared a project called “Taming the Beast,” which examined the historical context of wildland and human interfaces, scientific ecological inquiry, and Beowolf and Grendel all within the International Baccalaureate framework. Interdisciplinary, interactive presentations on using animal movement to write poetry, and ecological concepts to predict the locations of indigenous people in the area, stimulated creative conversations about breaking down the artificial barriers between traditional areas of study. A presentation about a Reggio-Emilia/Outdoor Pre-Kindergarten student investigation of wind started with students attempting to capture pictures of wind, and evolved into full-fledged design, creation, and testing of a miniature hot air balloon.

The five components presented here describe an approach to place-based education that moves beyond the traditional definition connected to environmental education and directly into a future of a rich and engaging curriculum in all schools. Instead of asking students to wait for 20 years to really understand the “why” behind school, students spend twenty years as integral and participatory members of learning communities. Imagine a world with place-based education for every child, connecting learning locally, regionally, and ultimately, globally. With multiple opportunities to interact with professionals, chances to design solutions to real challenges, and skills to understand the world through multiple lenses, these students are the citizens that the world needs for tomorrow.

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