Teachers to maximize student engagement with place-based education projects

Instead of competing for the attention of students staring out school windows, some local teachers are planning to take classrooms outdoors.

Curriculum to engage students by addressing local issues is known as place-based education (PBE). In Flint, the Discovering PLACE program at University Outreach supports teachers and partners using PBE pedagogy, which aims to develop stewardship among students.

Educators at Flint’s Southwestern Academy, for example, are planning to create a native habitat for ducks occupying one of the school’s courtyards, which are currently capturing student interest.

“The ducks chose us, we didn’t choose them,” said teacher Linda Heck during a recent Discovering PLACE project planning session.

Along with identifying projects that maximize students’ interests and abilities, teachers must develop place-based education projects around curriculum standards, since students work on PBE projects during the school day.

At Southwestern, this may mean math is taught through calculating the perimeter and area of the courtyard, graphing duck behavior, or figuring amounts for fowl feed and water. Earth science concepts such as sun and soil requirements may be learned through planting native grasses, and English language arts may be practiced through journaling about the experience.

Students can not only gain memorable academic lessons from the projects, but glean satisfaction from contributing to a healthy environment for the ducks, and from building a learning space to be used by later students. Youth also benefit from working side-by-side with community partners on their projects.

While place-based education also encompasses projects with a community theme – such as recording oral histories or working to help a local business – the majority of Discovering PLACE teachers are planning environmental-focused projects, which will be implemented starting this fall.

Along with the duck habitat, project planning ideas include school-community gardens, an outdoor classroom with a weather station, a berry garden and a school-community stage area, a solar greenhouse, cistern and rain barrel, a worm composting center, a bird habitat, and revamping a school entrance area to welcome families and discourage vandalism, as well as redesigning a muddy area to absorb water and prevent runoff.

Teachers and partners teamed up with environmental graduate students from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in one recent workshop. Working in design charrettes around schoolyard maps, participants sketched ideas that teachers are linking to curriculum standards. Teachers are also identifying community partners who can both contribute to, and benefit from projects being planned in the Flint, Westwood Heights and Beecher districts.

The Discovering PLACE program at University Outreach, which began in 2009, is one of eight hubs of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative. To learn more about Discovering PLACE, go to blogs.umflint.edu/glsi.