Exploring Place-based Education Programs in the Pacific Northwest

by Becs Boyd

On the southwest coast of Oregon a small town called Charleston is tucked against a busy dockside lined with fishing and tourist boats. The Oregon Institute of Marine Biology has its base here, in a campus of attractive traditional buildings covered in sun-bleached wooden shakes. I’m here to see OIMB’s amazing track record for bringing the local marine environment to life for local children.

For the past six years a National Science Foundation grant has meant that nine OIMB graduate students a year have been teaching marine biology two days a week in twelve local schools to Grades K-6 (ages 6 to 12), reaching around 3500 students. The result? – a generation of schools and teachers with an excellent knowledge of the sea life at their doorstep, what it looks like, how it works, and the issues and challenges it faces. On the way they learn to think like scientists and are familiar with microscopes, hypotheses, moon phases and zoea. The curriculum framework is cleverly arranged by habitat, with Grade 1 studying rocky shores, Grade 2 sandy shores, Grade 3 estuaries, Grade 4 kelp forests, Grade 5 the open ocean and Grade 6 drawing all they have learned together with the study of islands.

It’s 11 May and I am with Josh Lord, a second year grad student who works on the biology of gumboot chitons when he is not teaching. Our first class of 11 and 12 year-olds at Driftwood School, Port Orford, is getting ready for a seabird field trip today and a rocky shores field trip next week, where the students will compare the shore diversity with an early spring trip to the same spot. They have worked with Josh to produce an excellent seabird field guide for today’s trip, complete with illustrations and facts on the key species they have researched. They are obviously very proud of it, and have become good at bird ID. Their class discussion shows that they are not only enthusiastic but very knowledgeable about marine ecosystems.BecsBoyd2

Our next class of 10 and 11 year olds is studying plankton today. They peer through their microscopes, identifying diatoms, copepods and crab megalopa, and Josh talks to them about how some plankton use spikes to deter microscopic predators.

Next it is time for a visit with the Grade 6s to a bird rehabilitation centre, then enthusiastic seabird spotting at Coquille Point through a line of telescopes.

There is just time to get back to OIMB for 5pm and the annual Open House. Is is impressive to see up to 500 elementary students bring their families to see what sort of research their revered grad students are doing, and to introduce their parents to marine biology. Some of the Driftwood School pupils have a table of their own to show off a project they have done on the history and natural history of their local estuary.

Trish Mace, the OIMB GK-12 Programme Co-ordinator, says that the programme benefits everyone. ‘The elementary students and teachers learn about their local patch of sea and benefit from OIMB’s scientific expertise and equipment, the grad students learn the invaluable skill of communicating complex science, and there is much better awareness of the work of OIMB and of marine stewardship issues across the whole community.’ She stresses the strong emphasis on place – building links between local marine life and the local community.

The plan is to make this programme self-sustaining next year, with class teachers taking over from the grad students. To help this work, lesson plans, field trips, powerpoints and other teaching aides are being organised onto DVDs for easy use by teachers. It is hoped that a further round of funding next year can target local High Schools.

Becs Boyd is on a one-year sabbatical from her job with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, exploring place-based education programs throughout the Pacific Northwest through a Churchill fellowship. Her blog can be found at