Field-based Research

Field-based Research

How to Design Field-based Research Experiences

By Molly L. Sultany,
High School Teacher, Northwest Academy, Portland, Oregon

Navigating Unchartered Waters
How can educators help students feel more connected to the outdoors while engaging with the work of research scientists? Scientific research may feel elusive to high school students, an unknown world hidden behind a technical paper, a puzzling chi-square analysis, or a p-value waiting to be deciphered. Yet, participating in field-based research may improve students’ intrinsic motivation, build resiliency, and enhance their sense of personal agency and responsibility (Marley et. al, 2022). I believe that teaching students outdoors introduces novelty and authentic learning opportunities into an existing science curriculum (Behrendt & Franklin, 2014). In addition, field-based research experiences provide a compelling alternative to a digitally dominated learning environment, often inundated with electronic media. Benefits to students’ well-being may include a longer attention span, multi-sensory experiences, deeper context for learning, a sense of comradery and feelings of community belonging, as well as reduced stress and fewer signs of ADHD (Grimshaw et. al, 2016). Overall, introducing a fieldwork component to existing curriculum may enhance student engagement, improve critical thinking, and foster positive interpersonal skills.

At our field site in Cannon Beach, Ofregon, students measured 3,807 ochre sea stars with 54 total search hours.

How to Engage Students in Field-based Research Projects?
· Build Your Professional Network: Connect with other educators at your school, district, or area interested in developing student-led research projects. Attend professional development opportunities for science education.
· Partner with Local Non-Profit Organizations: Become a member of regional and national non-profit groups dedicated to environmental conservation. This may provide opportunities for volunteering where you can meet like-minded individuals and build lasting community connections to enhance your understanding of local environmental issues.
· Lead with Student Interests: Brainstorm ideas for research projects with students. Start with a field trip to a nearby park, green space, or natural habitat. Find ways to discuss local conservation issues as part of your curriculum. Be inspired by students’ own personal interests, curiosity, and inquiry.
· Create a Science Lunch & Learn Program: Invite STEM professionals from your school community or region to give a presentation during the lunch hour for students about science career pathways, current research, or ways to become involved with the larger scientific community.
· Video Chat with a Scientist: Get inspired by programs offered through NASA, NOAA, and the Nautilus Live: Ocean Exploration Trust to connect students virtually to scientists to learn more about their research.

Wearing hip waders and waterproof gloves, Northwest Academy students measured ochre sea star (Pisaster ochraceus) size classes, and observed signs of sea star wasting syndrome.

Local Spotlight: Diack Ecology Education Program
After attending an Oregon Science Teachers’ Association (OSTA) meeting, I learned about the inspiring work of the Diack Ecology Education Program. This unique program provides Oregon educators with financial support and pedagogical resources through grants, workshops, and programming. Their goal is to provide guidance for teachers to develop effective student-centered, field-based science inquiry experiences. I admire the program’s values: commitment to local stewardship, opportunities for student leadership and decision-making, and an emphasis on outdoor experiential learning. Through their website (, teachers can apply to attend bi-annual workshops taught by experienced science educators, where they learn how to construct a science inquiry project centered on local field work. The Diack program strives to help teachers develop greater scientific literacy and build civic engagement on themes related to local ecology, natural history, and environmental science.
Over the past ten years, the Diack Ecology Education Program has funded multiple student research projects at Northwest Academy, an independent high school in Portland, Oregon. Participation in this program has connected my high school students to the larger scientific community, including The Johnson Creek Watershed Council, Portland State University, U.S. Stockholm Junior Water Prize Conference, and the Oregon Environmental Science Summit where students had the opportunity to present their research in person to Dr. Jane Goodall. These experiences have transformed our high school science research program, and introduced students to the wonder, joy, and complexity of the natural world. Past projects have included a study of local stream health (2014), the role of diatoms as indicators of water quality (2015), and microplastics in beach sand (2017). Our most recent project (2022) had a dual focus on how marine biota respond to environmental change by studying the prevalence of sea-star wasting syndrome in ochre sea stars (Pisaster ochraceus) and documenting nesting success of cormorants during the summer breeding season.

Benefits to Students
After our field research at the Oregon Coast in 2022, I learned that participating in field research has many direct benefits to adolescents, with transformative effects on socio-emotional learning, scientific literacy, and the development of a civic identity. By taking part in challenging field tasks in an unpredictable outdoor environment, students may develop an improved positive self-concept and increased self-esteem, seeing themselves as capable learners. One of my students reflected: “I learned that I have much more patience that I give myself credit for, and that I am also good at paying attention to details when I am observing.” In addition to these changes in self-perception, I believe there is value in helping students see science in action beyond textbook learning. This may, in turn, deepen students’ respect for the natural world. The student leader of our field team shared: “I learned about the shocking effects of sea star wasting syndrome, and what this damage for the sea star population could mean for the rocky intertidal ecosystem. With little prior knowledge of the effects of climate change or any practical interactions with climate change, seeing the effects of sea star wasting syndrome on the sea stars was immediately eye-opening.”
Lastly, participating in a science project with relevance to a region may strengthen students’ civic identity and build meaningful connections with their local community. It may also help students cultivate a personal connection with the natural world. While exploring the tidepools, each field day brought novel discoveries, keen observations, and many more scientific questions. By the end of our project, my students had become fiercely protective of our beach field site, which hosted incredibly diverse rocky intertidal habitat home to invertebrates, from crabs to chitons. One of my students shared: “walking through the sea cave at the tidepools and seeing all the biodiversity, from sea stars to isopods, was my favorite part of fieldwork. I want people to treat the world around us with respect. Interacting with the public and teaching them about this small part of marine conservation was meaningful and important to me.” This newfound sense of stewardship for the natural world was accompanied by their desire to teach others, share what they had learned, and reinforce proper tidepool etiquette at the beach.

Fostering Teacher Professional Learning Goals
Immersing students in dynamic environmental field research may also benefit educators in terms of curriculum design, pedagogy, and improved content knowledge. Inspired by field experiences with my students, I decided to incorporate themes related to marine biodiversity, ocean conservation, and anthropogenic global climate change into my high school science classes. Fieldwork reinforced the value of fostering creative and critical thinking with a flexible mindset in my approach to science teaching. It emphasized an inquiry model of the scientific method, fostering science process skills from observation to questioning. For many students who participated in fieldwork, this experience led to other opportunities to share their research findings at local science fairs, conferences, and school events. All in all, I believe that participating in field-based research projects will remain a valued tradition for our science program at Northwest Academy.

A special thank you to Mike Weddle, from the Diack Ecology Education Program, & Jesse Jones, CoastWatch Program Manager.

Works Cited
• Behrendt M & Franklin T. A review of research on school field trips and their value in education. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education. 2014 9 (10).
• Grimshaw M, Curwen L, Morgan J, Shallcross N, Franklin S, Shallcross D. The benefits of outdoor learning on science teaching. Journal of Emergent Science 2019, 16 (40).
• Marley SA, Siani A, Sims S. Real-life research projects improve student engagement and provide reliable data for academics. Ecol Evol. 2022, 8 (12).

Equity in a Time of Socio-Environmental Justice

Equity in a Time of Socio-Environmental Justice

Equity in a Time of
Socio-Environmental Justice

by Max Jimenez
Environmental Literacy, Policy

This article was republished with permission and originally appeared in California Classroom Science (CCS), an e-newsletter produced by the California Science Teachers Association (CSTA).

hen we talk about the education system and how it can be utilized as a tool to promote equity and fight for socio-environmental justice, I’m sure we are all wondering, what can this possibly look like? As someone who has gone through California’s public education system from elementary school all the way to a four-year public university, I have so many ideas of possible solutions. My thoughts don’t just come from what I’ve read, they come from what I’ve experienced as an immigrant woman of color who came from a working-class family.
Reflecting back to when I was younger, I don’t recall having any formal discussions about what was going on in our environment. I believe that this was due to our underfunded and under-resourced public education system. In each grade, I had between two to three different teachers, making my education experience unstable and inconsistent. However, I remember watching commercials and cartoons with the jingle, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” to reduce pollution that was hurting our environment. Yet, I felt that there was never a reason that truly connected with me. Even if I heard of different ways I could make change for the better, I didn’t understand why it was vital for me to be a part of that movement for social change. Awareness is great, but no matter what age we are, it is much better to be conscious, and that only happens through thoughtful interactions that empower youth.
As I got older, I learned why the practice of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” was important and how pollution affects my family and me. I learned that my community was more susceptible to certain diseases due to our lack of access to clean air and healthy foods. This brings me to my first point, it is crucial to create spaces for young people to identify how certain issues are closer to them than they think. We cannot water down and sugarcoat problems because we believe that we need to protect young people from the harsh truth. By hiding the truth from young people, we are losing the opportunity to make change. We don’t have time to waste. Young people have the most to lose because these issues impact their future and they deserve to know the truth.
In fact, knowledge is so accessible nowadays that even if you don’t tell us, we will find out anyway. We know where our money is going and we will find out what key decision makers are voting on issues that affect us most. Young people are so fed up, that they are registering to vote in historic numbers and there has been an increased number of young people running for office!

My second point is that for education to be effective, it must be relevant to what students are going through in their daily lives. Often, this is related to climate and other environmental issues. If they are able to understand that these local issues are affecting them and the people they care about, then it’s only a matter of time until they will be able to connect it to larger, global issues. This doesn’t just create a better understanding of what is happening in our world, but this makes it easier for young people to find solutions to the issues they’re concerned about. As a benefit, this nuanced understanding that these different struggles are interconnected teaches young people what it means to be in solidarity with other people’s struggles.

In learning spaces, it is important to accommodate people’s understanding of the world. This brings me to my third point, students come from different backgrounds, and I have noticed that “environmental justice work” has been structured for white and affluent communities. We must consider how sustainability can be inclusive to people of color and working-class communities. We need to make sure that the movements we are fostering center around frontline communities who are being impacted most. Centering around frontline communities means honoring the resilience and experiences of those community members (for example, black and brown youth). This does not mean you can tokenize their existence and participation to benefit your own agenda. Some ways you can prevent tokenization of frontline community members is to avert your assumptions around the idea that all people they share their identities with (whether that’s race, gender, class, etc.) are the same because each is unique. Despite shared identities, there are different intersections of identity that people face, making their experiences unique from one another. Having one person carry this responsibility to represent everyone who holds the same identity is an unfair expectation. Another example of tokenization is when young people aren’t given the opportunity to claim their power in spaces that are meant to empower them. In addition, it is common for organizations and classrooms to tokenize marginalized community members for the sake of fulfilling a “diversity” requirement. Doing so is extremely disrespectful, and folks with privilege must do their own research* to find ways to honor the wisdom and experiences that marginalized community members face systemically.

I have experienced tokenization on different occasions. My first memory was when I was working with a climate education organization called Alliance for Climate Education (ACE). ACE took young people, including myself to the State Capitol to lobby for progressive climate policies. ACE helped us practice how to lobby with government officials and supported us throughout the whole process. My experience when lobbying was difficult because it was my first time talking to government officials and persuading them to support climate policies. What should have been an empowering experience, didn’t feel that way. It didn’t feel empowering because when I would tell them why these climate policies are important to the livelihood of those in my community, and when I asked them to support a bill we were advocating for, they either applauded us or told us that we did a great job. It was obvious that they didn’t take us seriously. Some of them even asked to take a picture with us even if they didn’t seem serious about supporting what we asked for. It was hard to accept that even if the communities we were a part of were being affected by climate change and environmental racism, people in power didn’t seem to get past the fact that even if we are young, our voices matter. The fact that they had the audacity to make that experience a photo opportunity for them, to make it seem like they engaged with youth, was even more disrespectful because they didn’t take our demands seriously. This example of my experience being tokenized was disempowering and disheartening. However, I learned a lot about my experience lobbying and I hope that you can recognize that it is especially crucial for learning spaces, such as a classroom, to avoid this kind of culture. The first step to avoid this and honor young people’s experiences is to remember that we are all students (no matter your age) and there is so much we can learn from young people if we include them in the conversation.

Lastly, if we really want to honor young people in this movement, please take us seriously. Don’t give us a pat on the back or applaud us when we demand justice. Don’t patronize our experiences and don’t use our resistance as a photo opportunity to make yourselves credible in the same space where you are making decisions that don’t benefit future generations. It is not up to you to decide how and what we learn, the world is changing so fast and we don’t have the option of waiting until we are older to take action. We need y’all to make space, instead of taking space from us, so we can fight and create a world that we can AND want to live in. Accessibility for all is a priority if we want to embody the word, “justice,” because what is the point of having environmental or climate education if all students do not have access and if it’s not done in a way that respects local expertise. Making space can mean creating lesson plans that will give students the opportunity to share the knowledge they already possess with one another. Allowing students to build collective knowledge is essential in establishing their confidence, as well as creating opportunities for students to develop a community with one another. We must restructure these top-down, vertical learning structures where students are only learners and are only capable of retaining information. An effective solution I have seen is providing collaborative learning spaces that allow students to flourish. This means that educators take on the role of facilitator. Facilitators are still able to reach learning goals, but in this way, the participants have the agency to find their own way of achieving those learning goals. We must have faith that our students have the power to analyze their surroundings critically and that they are able to develop these skills on their own. From my experience, I learned the most when my teachers and mentors/femmentors constantly reminded me that the knowledge I possess has great value. Asking students what they want to learn about and involving them in the creation of lesson plans will show them taking the initiative over their own education is possible. I know that when I was given the space to take control over what and how I wanted to learn, it was easier for me to understand the concepts my teachers carefully planned and allowed me to recognize that I have the agency to empower myself through education.

To close, when we all talk about justice, people will have different approaches and when young people decide to be militant—don’t repress and silence us! We need your support in this intergenerational fight for socio-environmental justice. We need to remember that organizing and fighting for this justice is not glamorous, it is a necessity. The actions we take to defend our Earth, and our livelihoods are acts of survival.

Some good starting places for those willing to dig deeper:

Cohen, Julie. “How Social Justice and the Environment Connect.” Futurity, 2017.
Sandler, Ronald L, and Phaedra C. Pezzullo. Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007.
Southern Poverty Law Center. “Analyzing Environmental Justice.” Teaching Tolerance, 2018.

Max Jimenez is a 4th-year student at the University of California, Santa Cruz studying Politics and Community Studies. She was raised in Northeast Los Angeles, where she continues to organize for environmental and housing justice.

“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
– Sonya Renee Taylor

he outdoor science and environmental education (EE) field is reeling. The impact of COVID-19 has been devastating. The pandemic has revealed that across the country, organizations in this field are structured and have responded more like restaurants than school systems. Within days or weeks of the shutdown, there were massive lay-offs and furloughs, and by the end of the calendar year, if shelter in place and physical distancing guidelines are not lifted, nearly three-fourths of all organizations are uncertain about their ability to reopen (Collins, Dorph, Foreman, Pande, Strang, & Young, 2020). Ever.
For all of us, regardless of what sector of business, government or public good we are in, there is no playbook or set of best practices for making our way through this situation. Every organizational leader we’ve talked to is juggling competing priorities, responsibilities as novel as the virus itself, and no-win decision-making dilemmas, with fewer resources than they had before. It is clear that the challenges of 2020 will continue to test even the wisest and hardest working leaders.
And, as is a common theme during crises (especially economic crises), we are hearing from white-led organizations that work on equity, inclusion, cultural relevance, justice, and diversity, much of which began recently, is “being put on pause.” Some leaders are questioning whether or how equity work can continue when they don’t know if their organizations will survive this crisis or when most of their staff have been laid off. This line of thinking leaves the field on a path that will return us to the “normal” that resulted from decades of performative commitments to racial equity, inequitable policies that disadvantage Communities of Color, and exclusive and marginalizing workplace environments (Romero, Foreman, Strang, Rodriguez, Payan, & Moore Bailey, 2019). We suggest that anti-racism in our field is important enough that we should pursue it even when it is not convenient to do so.
What if we returned from this pandemic with a deep and profound commitment to a new way of being? What would it look like if, instead of this crisis making our work towards equity slower and less important, it became an opportunity for the field to work towards equity faster and make that work a higher priority? What if equity and inclusion were built into every fiber of our reimagined and reopened organizations, considered in every new initiative so that “pausing” is not possible as it is simply how we go about each day? As the Learning Policy Institute wrote, “(school) districts and states can make policy and practice decisions in the coming weeks and months that both respond to current needs and chip away at long-standing gaps in opportunity and access. (Cardichon, 2020)” We believe the same is true for environmental education organizations.
Here are seven ideas for white-led organizations to join the effort in transforming the EE field to a new way of being that is rooted in racial equity and has justice embedded at every inflection point:

1 Talk about racism.
Racism is at the heart of inequity in this country. Currently, the impacts of COVID-19 on health and the economy are being disproportionately felt by People of Color. When we think about how environmental education can emerge stronger from this pandemic, it must involve naming race as a factor in inequity. As The BridgeSpan Group wrote in a recent report, “A race-neutral approach would fail to account for the ways that existing disparities and structural racism affect outcomes (Patel, Smith, & Martin, 2020).” We need to directly talk about anti-blackness, white supremacy culture, police brutality, and how racism is built into our country’s policies and systems in deep ways that manifest in our everyday interactions. When white people speak out, People of Color don’t bear the burden alone to bring these issues to light. As Natasha Cloud wrote, “if you’re silent, you are part of the problem (Cloud, 2020).” Specifically, the environmental movement and environmental education field are steeped in racist history from John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, to the formation of our National Parks, to the field’s insular hiring and advancement trends, to the appropriation of indigenous culture while simultaneously erasing its current context and contributions, to the stories we tell and songs we sing at campfires. We have a responsibility to read, discuss, and to educate ourselves and each other about the harm embedded in our history, our “monuments”, and which ones need to be pulled down (Brune, 2020).

2 Rethink goals, priorities and measures of “success.”
There is a damaging, harmful paradigm in our field that tells us that the value of our work is defined by “numbers served.” This paradigm privileges quantity over quality and outputs over outcomes. When our funders, our boards, and our egos tell us that more is better, and the surest sign of resilience when we reopen is to return to our previous scale as quickly as possible, equity is always the casualty. Prioritizing numbers served will lead to two racist outcomes: we will design programs for majority audiences first and wait until “later” to adapt them for marginalized communities with “special needs;” and we will offer programs first to customers that can pay retail program fees because more revenue allows us to hire more staff and run more programs. Scholarships, tuition waivers, transportation grants, and community partnerships will have to wait until “we are back on our feet,” until we have “more bandwidth.” A new paradigm would have us look away from head counting, and instead prioritize addressing the needs of the most vulnerable communities first. Communities that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19, hammered by school closures, failed by remote “learning,” traumatized by racist violence, and historically denied the physical and emotional benefits of access to safe outdoor spaces–what if we designed our reopening strategies to serve these communities first? We can make the case to our philanthropy and government agency partners that they should also adjust their measures of success to address relevant societal challenges rather than simplistic numeric targets.

3 Re-imagine the workplace.
For those of us still working, the workplace looks radically different. Not only have our office locations largely shifted to our homes, but ways of interacting, meeting, conducting programs and doing business have been completely disrupted. This disruption is an opportunity to examine our existing workplace structures, systems, and cultures through the lens of white supremacy culture (Okun, n.d.). Tema Okun and Keneth Jones write that white supremacy is part of the fabric of all of our organizations, but the good news is, there are antidotes. Let’s re-envision how we work with one another: how decisions are made, who holds power in our organizations, what kinds of expertise and lived experience are valued and promoted, what we expect from one another, and how transparent those expectations are. Let’s create new practices and traditions, define shared values, and create new feedback systems that promote equity, inclusion, respect and power-sharing.

4 Reinvigorate professional learning.
Organizations facing a financial crunch when reopening may have a natural reflex to reduce professional learning time to maximize the time spent delivering programs. We recommend going slow to go fast. Double down on professional learning and the reflection time that it provides to rethink the quality, purpose and priorities of your work. In addition to safety protocols, program logistics, and inspiring new natural history content, make sure that your new team has plenty of time to get to know each other, to build rapport and a common vision, to define values, and to create a brave space for challenging conversations together. Ensure that professional learning includes time to: increase understanding of the history of racism in our field (and the U.S. more broadly), reflect on unconscious bias, build awareness of and strategies for confronting microaggressions, and focus teaching and learning on cultural relevance, multiple ways of knowing, and, as Paulo Friere says, “using education as a practice for freedom (Friere, 2018).” Take some time to learn directly from the communities that you will be inviting to your programs. While your whole team should have opportunities to attend conferences and workshops, it is important to prioritize the participation of professionals who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in these opportunities. For many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color on a mostly white staff, their only opportunity to find affinity spaces, empathy, mentors of Color, and relief from being a “minority” is to attend professional learning experiences outside your organization. Professional learning and networking that includes opportunities to engage in affinity spaces can provide for those with marginalized identities an antidote and healing to counteract the effects of isolation and oppression, and, for those with dominant identities, provides a learning space that does not rely on the emotional labor of the oppressed.

5 Redesign hiring practices.
When we’re open and begin to rebuild the capacity of the EE field, we can reconsider what expertise we want at every level of leadership in our organizations. We must prioritize experience and expertise advocating for and communicating about equity, lived experience in and with the communities we’re striving to reach, and models of leadership beyond those rooted in white supremacy culture and characteristics. Redesigning hiring practices includes redesigning job announcements and job descriptions, qualifications, hiring criteria, interview questions, performance evaluations, and where we recruit. These reimagined components will ring true if they mirror comparable revisions to our organizational mission, vision, values, goals and priorities. Changes to the racial and gender diversity of our directors, middle managers and instructors that six months ago could only happen gradually over years, could now be a stunning and welcome example of punctuated equilibrium. Our newly comprised teams will be uniquely suited to establish partnerships and design authentically culturally relevant programming with and for marginalized communities that we aim to serve first. Note to HR directors and hiring committees: you shouldn’t have any trouble finding qualified Professionals of Color to apply; they were among the first to be laid off at the outset of the pandemic!
6 Rebuild partnerships.
Establish authentic and mutually beneficial relationships with a broad range of environment-rich organizations across sectors including environmental justice, youth development, health and wellness, food justice, nutrition, transportation, clean water, clean air, and more. These organizations may not self-identify as being in the environmental education sector. Meet, read up, listen carefully, find the intersection of the goals of your programs with the needs and priorities of your partners. In addition, establish partnerships with school districts, county offices of education, and other mainstream education systems that can provide access to environmental education experiences for a broader range of learners. When we envision mutually beneficial relationships, rather than audiences or customers we can serve, we can dismantle a deeply rooted sense of saviorism that positions those with resources as benevolent bringers of outdoor experiences. Partnerships with community-based organizations and school systems can help us to identify vulnerable populations, and help us to understand what societal conditions have led to their vulnerability. If these genuine partnerships are established at the same time that we have redesigned hiring practices and reimagined our workplace, we can have the resources, expertise and lived experience within our organizations to build trust and expedite the efficacy of our work together.
7 Redefine the field.
With broader partnerships, inclusive workplace cultures, more equitable hiring practices, and a clear focus on equity at all levels of our work, we can redefine the field of environmental education — which has roots in the oppression and marginalization of People of Color — into a field that works towards ensuring that every person is able to access the healing benefits of spending time outdoors and connecting to nature. Environmental education can be a field that recognizes and honors that “environmental literacy” is comprised of the knowledge, skills, know-how, attitudes, values, and beliefs that are held by communities in unique and powerful ways.
Centering equity cannot be the work of one person or even one organization–individuals must work together to change policies, pedagogy, curriculum, culture, and systems. All of these steps are part of a systemic approach to centering equity and, in particular, racial equity. Prioritizing racial equity will enhance the environmental education field for us all. As BridgeSpan articulates, “deliberately prioritizing racial equity will further benefit the rest of society through the ‘curb-cut effect,’ which has shown that laws and programs designed for vulnerable groups have positive impacts on others (Cardichon, 2020).” Naming racism, creating antidotes to white supremacy, valuing many kinds of experience and expertise, and building strong partnerships will improve our relationships to each other and to nature, and make the environmental education field stronger, more resilient, and vastly more relevant.
None of these actions are new. Each of these ideas has been articulated, described in-depth, and called for by social justice and environmental justice leaders of Color in the environmental education field and beyond, for decades, often in ways that are under-recognized and under-supported. Their messages have been largely ignored or unseen by white-led and predominantly white organizations. There is nothing good about this pandemic: the loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of cherished organizations is staggering and hard to comprehend. Since there is no going back, let’s figure out how to use this moment, by establishing an environmental education field that is truly centered in racial equity and inclusion.

Brune, M. (2020). Pulling down our monuments. Retrieved from
Cardichon, J. (2020). Using federal stimulus funds to advance equity and opportunity. Learning Policy Institute, Washington, DC. Retrieved from
Cloud, N. (2020). Your silence is a knee on my neck. Retrieved from
Collins, M. A., Dorph, R., Foreman, J., Pande, A., Strang, C., & Young, A. (2020). A field at risk: The impact of COVID-19 on environmental and outdoor science education: Policy brief. Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley; California. Retrieved at
Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury publishing USA. (First published in Brazil in 1968).
Okun, T. (n.d.) white supremacy culture. Retrieved from
Patel, S. M., Smith, A. H., & Martin, H. (2020). Racial equity implications of the covid-19 pandemic: Opportunities for philanthropic response. The Bridgespan Group. Retrieved at
Romero, V., Foreman, J., Strang, C., Rodriguez, L., Payan, R., & Moore Bailey, K. (2019). Examining equitable and inclusive work environments in environmental education: Perspectives from the field and implications for organizations. Berkeley, CA. Retrieved at

Jedda Foreman is Director of Environmental Literacy programs at the Lawrence Hall of Science. She is a passionate educator deeply invested in place-based and experiential education.

Rena Payan is the Senior Program Manager at Justice Outside, where she is tasked with working toward equity and representation in the outdoor field by supporting young adults from diverse backgrounds through training that will develop them into outdoor leaders, stronger community advocates, and more confident stewards of the Earth.

Laura Rodriguez is Chief Program Office at Justice Outside. Her passion for the outdoors is matched by her desire to effect change within the outdoor field; and to this end, she approaches the work of racial equity, inclusion, and cultural relevancy with resolve, authenticity, and empathy.

Craig Strang is Associate Director of the Hall and the Director of BaySci (The Bay Area Partnership for Science Education) and MARE (Marine Activities, Resources, and Education). He is also the BEETLES Principal Investigator.

Using Stations to Increase Student Independence: Overview and Lesson Plan

Using Stations to Increase Student Independence: Overview and Lesson Plan

by Allison Breeze

s an educator, I believe that learning happens when students are applying their knowledge in practice. To this end, I am always looking for activities that engage students in hands-on ways with whatever topic they are learning about. Exploration and experience can provide immensely beneficial learning opportunities for students that give them context to process information. For this to work effectively, students must be positioned in such a way that allows them to take action, and the instructor must be willing to take a step back from holding control over the learning. One effective method for structuring such an environment is stations.

In stations-based activities, students are asked to complete a task in a certain location, and then repeatedly move to a new location to complete a different task, until they have visited all the locations, or within a specific timeframe. Oftentimes, there will be a rotation to allow for multiple students to experience different stations simultaneously. Stations offer the structure of spatial and task-based boundaries to keep students safe, while providing the opportunity for them to have agency and independence in completing the assigned task. Additionally, stations can be done individually or in small groups, to either allow students some independent processing time, or as a way to foster collaboration.

Instructors can often set up the stations ahead of time so that they don’t have to give as many directions to introduce an activity. This way, students are spending most of their time actually engaged in the learning, as opposed to waiting for it to begin. This also means that instructors can feel less rushed and give students the space they need to be successful.

Stations often set students up to be more independent than teacher-led instruction. For some students, this agency is very natural to their preferred structure for learning and helps them express themselves more easily. For other students, this independence requires them to engage in productive struggle to figure out the task and collaborate with their peers rather than relying on the teacher for help. In both situations, the stations model is promoting student growth by offering another mode for learning and asking students to try something new.

Stations in Practice:
I find stations to be an effective structure in which to conduct investigations with my students. It helps data collection happen faster, it means students are less likely to be left waiting with nothing to do, and it requires students to independently make connections between their actions and the overarching inquiry that is being investigated.

One such example investigation I have done with students focuses on the different ways that decomposition occurs in compost. At IslandWood, we have three types of compost bins: an EarthFlow that uses mechanical and bacterial decomposition, a high-volume vermicompost that uses worms and other macroinvertebrates, and a garden compost that uses macroinvertebrates and special fiber mats for insulation. In the investigation, students form three groups that rotate between each compost bin and collect data about each bin — temperature, soil color, material, number and type of macroinvertebrates — to understand how natural material breaks down into nutrient-rich soil in different ways. Each compost station has a set of directions and tools available, and every student has a journal with a data table to record their observations. At the end of the data collection, all students come together to synthesize their information as a whole group and debrief what they learned during the activity.

In this activity, I find that using stations can make scientific inquiry more accessible to students, because it offers many entry points to engaging with the material. It also allows me more time as an instructor to check in with specific students. I make sure to include multiple ways of recording data, such as numerically, through written expression, verbalization, and drawing, to ensure that all students have a way of participating. I have also found that students are more willing to challenge themselves if they are engaged in peer-to-peer interactions while learning, which the stations format allows for better than lecture or instructor-modeled kinesthesis. If a student who is concerned about touching bugs sees a friend holding a worm, they might be more inclined to try touching it, because they can see that behavior being modeled with safe and comfortable consequences.

Overall, I have seen stations as a great way to help students experience more agency and collaboration within an intentional environment set up by the instructor. Using stations can be a nice break from a traditional activity format that provides a balance between flexibility and structure to prioritize student engagement.

Lesson Plan:

Students will collect data at three different compost bins to compare and contrast the ways that decomposition happens at each. They will record and synthesize the data they find and draw conclusions.

Students are in an outdoor educational setting with three compost systems. They have been introduced to the concept of producers, consumers, and decomposers in a food web. They are curious about the differences between the three compost systems.

● Students will understand the role of compost in a food web
● Students will be able to give examples of how decomposition occurs
● Students will know how to collect data in an investigation
● Students will be aware of the different kinds of compost systems

● Understanding energy transfer in a food web system
● Taking observed phenomenon and drawing conclusions
● Creating models of data to explore it further
● Exploring the process of decomposition of natural materials

● Journals with data tables (one for each student)
● Pens/pencils
● Drawing utensils
● Direction sheets for each compost bin*
● Large sheet of paper (for whole group data table)
● Thermometers
● Microscopes/magnifying lenses (optional)
*note: the direction sheets can include instructions for collecting the type of data that feels most meaningful to your students. An example has been included at the end of this lesson plan.
1. Familiarize students with each of the three compost bins – their locations, how to access the compost, and what they immediately notice about the differences of each
2. Ask students to consider the question – why do we have three different compost bins?
3. Explain that the students will be scientists conducting an investigation on each of the compost systems to learn about decomposition

1. Break students into three groups, one for each compost bin station
2. Send each group of students to a different station, with a direction sheet, thermometer, and magnifying tool (optional)
3. Students should record their data in their journal data table according to the direction sheet for their station
4. Signal to the groups to rotate to the next compost station, and collect data there
5. Once all groups have collected data at all stations, have the group come together as a whole and write in their data on the large sheet data table

Debrief (students sharing with someone from a different group):
1. Ask students what the differences and similarities between the three compost stations were
2. Ask students what evidence of decomposition they saw at each station
3. Have students come up with a representation — visual, physical, written, artistic — of what happens to natural waste (food scraps, dead plants, etc)
4. Revisit the initial question: Why do we have three compost bins?
5. Connect their answers to the larger food web of IslandWood

*Direction Sheet Example:
Earth Flow
1. Take a compost sample and rub it in the box labeled “earth flow” on page 11 of your journal
2. Stick the thermometer deep into the compost. Wait until the indicator stops moving, then record the temperature
3. Count the number of macroinvertebrates (bugs!) you see, and record
4. Draw the largest piece of material you see in the compost
5. Draw the different macroinvertebrates you see
6. Match the macros with those listed on page 18 of your journal

Allison Breeze is an elementary educator in the Puget Sound, currently working and learning as a graduate student at IslandWood.

Resources for further information:
Aydogmus, M., & Senturk, C. (2019). The effects of learning stations technique on academic achievement: A Meta-analytic study. Research in Pedagogy, 9(1), 1–15.
Chawla, L., & Cushing, D. F. (2007). Education for strategic environmental behavior. Environmental Education Research, 13 (4), 437-452. DOI: 10.1080/13504620701581539.
Gerçek, C., & Özcan, Ö. (2016). Determining the students’ views towards the learning stations developed for the environmental education. Problems of Education in the 21st Century, 69, 29. DOI: 10.33225/pec/16.69.29.

Maybe the problem wasn’t WHAT we were learning but WHERE we were learning?

Maybe the problem wasn’t WHAT we were learning but WHERE we were learning?

At-risk students are exposed to their local environment to gain an appreciation for their community, developing environmental awareness built on knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors applied through actions.


Lindsay Casper and Brant G. Miller
University of Idaho
Moscow, Idaho

Photos by Jessie Farr

n the last day of class, I walked with my students along a local river trail shaded by cottonwood trees and surrounded by diverse plants and animals. The shaded areas provided spots for us to stop, where students assessed the condition of the local river system and the surrounding environment. The class had spent the previous week by the river’s mouth, and the students had grown a connection to the local environment and to each other. This was evident in their sense of ownership of the environment and their lasting relationships, which were expressed as the students discussed what they had learned during the class.

A month earlier, the class began differently. The students were focused on themselves and their own needs. They stood alone and unwilling to participate. Many expressed feelings of annoyance by being outside, forced to walk and unsure about what to expect in the class. My students were disengaged in their community, education, and the environment. Most had spent little time outside and lacked environmental knowledge and displayed an uncaring attitude toward their local community.

The class included a group of Youth-in-Custody (YIC) students, those who were in the custody of the State (the Division of Child and Family Services, DCFS; and the Division of Juvenile Justice, DJJS), as well as students who are “at-risk” for educational failure, meaning they have not succeeded in other school programs.
Most of my students came from challenging circumstances, with little support for formal educational opportunities, and live in urban areas below the poverty level. Students below the poverty level have fewer opportunities to access nature reserves safely (Larson et al., 2010), and children who live in neighborhoods where they do not feel safe are less likely to readily apply environmental knowledge and awareness to their community (Fisman, 2005).

Despite these setbacks, I wanted to expose my students to their local environment and help them gain an appreciation for their community. I wanted to increase their environmental awareness, built on knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors applied through actions.

The summer education program approached the environmental curriculum via an action-oriented strategy, which takes learning to a level where the class and the outside world integrate with actual practices and address environmental problems (Mongar et al., 2023). The students began to show an understanding of how knowledge can affect their environment and exhibited purpose behind their action. The steps in an action-oriented approach involves students identifying public policy problems, then selecting a problem for study, followed by researching the problem, and developing an explanation, and then finally communicating their findings to others (Fisman, 2005).

Students explored science content, studied sustainable issues, read relevant scientific literature, developed and carried out research, and analyzed data. This multi-step program enabled students to stay active and engaged in environmental science practices and processes, increased their environmental awareness, encouraged them to implement these practices in a real-world environment, and allowed them to immerse in the learning experience. The program developed a connection with environmental restoration, crossed cultural borders and demographic diversity, created a sense of ownership and attachment, and developed a sense of belonging.

Week 1: Invasive Species in Mount Timpanogos Wildlife Management Area

The first week, students monitored a local problem of invasive plants by conducting a field project on vegetation sampling at a wildlife management area. Students researched the area and the issues with the invasive species of cheatgrass. They examined the characteristics that make cheatgrass invasive and used skills to identify local native plants and introduced species in the wilderness. Students determined the problem and used a transect line and percent canopy cover to determine the area’s overall percent cover of cheatgrass. Students used the results of the survey to evaluate the cheatgrass invasion in the area. They compiled their research and presented the issue to local community members to educate and inform them about the possible environmental problems in the area.

Students working in the national forest studying the role of trees in carbon cycling.

Week 2: Carbon Cycling in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest

During week two, the program evaluated forest carbon cycling within a wilderness area, part of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. The students’ projects involved carbon cycling models and forest carbon sinks to build a comprehensive summary of all the structures and processes involved in trees to help reduce the impact of human activity on the climate. Students identified problems in their local forests by researching the role of forests in carbon sequestration and evaluating climate change. They then selected a problem for the class to study involving the effects of deforestation. Additional research included students discovering how trees sequester carbon and researching how much carbon trees and forests can hold over a given time. Students used their results and data collection to determine how effective trees are for carbon sequestration, compiled their research, and presented the issue to local community members to educate and inform them of the possible environmental problems in deforestation and the need for forested area protection.

Week 3: Jordan River Watershed Management

Week three focused on watershed management, during which students investigated a local river and evaluated its watershed and continued pollution. Students identified problems in their community by reading articles and examining data concerning a local river’s environmental issues, proposed solutions, as well as the progress that has been achieved. Students then made qualitative statements about the river’s current condition based on abiotic and biotic measurements. Students used the information gathered and discussed issues concerning the current quality of the river and discussed why water quality is essential. Students researched the issue by conducting river water quality experiments using flow rate measurements and collected macroinvertebrates. Based on their experimental results, students developed a portfolio with a problem explanation, alternative policies, and a public statement concerning the current Jordan River water quality. Students then presented their findings to community members to help inform and educate them about the river contamination and improvements.

Student collecting water samples.

Week 4: Provo River Delta Restoration Project

During the last week, students examined a river delta restoration project for its effectiveness in restoring a wetland and recovering an endangered fish species. Students investigated the role and importance of river systems and wetland areas, monitored the status of the wetlands, and evaluated the current project’s future effectiveness. Students identified problems in their community by reading articles and examining historical data concerning the lakes environmental issues and made qualitative statements about the lake’s current condition. Students used the information gathered and discussed matters concerning the delta project to protect the local endangered species of June Sucker (Chasmistes liorus). In addition, students toured the construction site and participated in a stewardship activity planting new trees and helping to disperse cottonwood seeds around the area. Based on their stewardship project, a site tour, and experimental results, students developed a portfolio with a problem explanation, alternative policies, and a public statement concerning the current delta restoration project. Students presented their findings to others with the intent to inform and educate them about the project.

Student Impact

This program placed students as critical participants in sustainability and gave them ownership of their education, and knowledge of local environmental issues to give students a deeper appreciation and increased environmental awareness. This curriculum could be adapted for various populations although it is especially essential for those with disadvantaged backgrounds and those underrepresented in science. Creating an opportunity for my students to access nature and build environmental knowledge is important for them to build awareness and an increased ownership of their community. After completing the course, students wrote a reflection on their experience and a summary of what they learned concerning environmental awareness and feelings regarding their connection to nature.

“At first, I hated being outside, but it grew on me, and I had a lot of fun learning about the different invasive species and how they negatively affect the land.”

“I really enjoyed being outside for school. I liked the shaded and natural environments. It was enjoyable and easier to understand because I was learning about everything I could feel and touch.”

“I liked seeing the things we were learning about. It was easier to focus outside.”

Student working on writing assignments during the last day of class.

“I have had a lot of issues with school my whole life. I have never felt like what I was learning was useful. I felt like I was repeating work from former years over and over again and never getting anything out of it. After this experience, I began thinking that maybe the problem wasn’t what we were learning but where we were learning it. It was enjoyable being outside and seeing how what we were learning applied to the world around us. I got to see what we were being taught in action. We did tests with the world and not in a classroom. For the first time, I was really interested in what was being taught, and I realized that the problem wasn’t me.”

The importance of connecting at-risk youth to the outdoors is evident in their reflections. Their reflections indicate an appreciation for being outdoors, a more remarkable ability to focus their attention, and an advantage of learning in the world instead of the classroom. Students’ perception of environmental issues impacts their ability to make educated decisions. The increase in students place identity resulted in a deeper connection to the environment. Their knowledge, attitudes, and actions had changed.


On the last day of class, walking along the river trail with my students, I listened to their conversations, questioned their learning, and gathered their insights. I recognized how the connections made in class developed over time by building relationships, collaboration, trust, and teamwork. My students developed empathy for each other and their environment. As a class, we visited four distinct settings in our local area. My students could grasp the larger perspective by recognizing the cumulative effect of those areas as a whole. They identified the invasive species of cheatgrass studied in week one had made its way downriver and recognized the importance of carbon cycling studied during week two in the cottonwood trees flanking the banks of the river in addition to the value in wetlands studies in week three shown in the progress made on the restoration project. The sequence of each week was purposely built on the following week with a cumulative effort at the river delta restoration project, put in place to help solve many of the environmental issues identified in the previous week’s lessons. This program focuses on increasing student connection and ownership of the environment and identifying how isolated environmental concerns significantly impact the whole ecosystem. Additionally, I wanted my students to notice how environmental restoration and protection alleviate some of these issues. These connections came naturally to the students after the time spent outdoors and investigating environmental issues. Exposing them to new areas and increasing their knowledge and skills affects their awareness.

The environmental science program provided environmental concepts, fostering a deeper appreciation for nature and the outdoors. It engaged all senses, made learning more interactive and memorable, and encouraged more profound connections with the natural world, building ownership of the local area. This program initiated an attachment of students to the local area. It engaged students in environmental issues through science by participating in experiential outdoor education. It kept students engaged with relevant current topics, formed a connection to the natural world, and involved them in direct, focused experiences to increase knowledge, skills, and values.

Lindsay Casper is a graduate student in Environmental Science at the University of Idaho, in Moscow Idaho and teaches Environmental Science to at-risk youth at Summit High School in Utah.




Brant G. Miller, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the University of Idaho. His research interests include Adventure Learning, culturally responsive approaches to STEM education, science teacher education, and technology integration within educational contexts.

Using Stations to Increase Student Independence: Overview and Lesson Plan

Exploring the Classroom Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Implementing Place-based Education

by Lucy Clothier

eing a new teacher in this contemporary era of education can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. The demands placed upon teachers are extensive, often lacking clear pathways to achieving these substantial goals. Within the classroom, educators bear the responsibility of nurturing a grade-appropriate understanding of numeracy and literacy in all students, attending to each student’s emotional well-being, fostering open lines of communication with guardians, and so much more. Moreover, amid the hastening climate crisis and transformative technological strides reshaping society, the very structure of education is also changing. Education is moving away from the industrial model of rote memorization and increasingly molding into a 21st century structure concerned with cultivating socially conscious citizens who are able to navigate our rapidly changing world.

To advance these objectives, educators are increasingly turning to the implementation of place-based education (PBE). In essence, this comprehensive pedagogical approach seeks to immerse both students and educators in the richness of their surroundings for learning — seeing education unfold not only in the conventional classroom but from the local community, nature, history, and beyond. This philosophy disrupts the industrialized educational framework and flips it on its head. It suggests that learning is hands on, is reflective of real life, takes place anywhere, and centres the student experience. PBE supports teachers in confronting those classroom concerns while also actively participating in the shifting world. The positive impacts of this pedagogical approach is undeniable. Students feel empowered in their learning and have a heightened affinity for their immediate community. These sentiments, in turn, fosters improvement in academic performance and nurtures adaptive and responsible members of society.

How can a novice educator incorporate place-based education into their teaching practice while managing the myriad of other responsibilities inherent to the role? As a new teacher myself, I embarked on this journey with unwavering enthusiasm, envisioning myself as a proficient place-based educator, guiding my students to become intimately connected with nature and stewards of their community all within my first practicum. However, reality quickly humbled me as the challenges of this profession became more clear. In this article, I aim to dissect the strategies new teachers can employ to integrate PBE into their teaching. I also draw on my own experiences from teaching in a grade 3/4 combined class in the North Vancouver School District for specific ways to utilize these strategies. I hope this helps those interested in PBE to engage with place and see the beautiful rewards from this pedagogical approach.

When you begin your teaching journey, the initial focus often revolves around refining classroom management skills, mastering assessment techniques, and crafting personalized lesson planning approaches. Imposing undue pressure upon oneself to attain instant expertise in PBE is unrealistic. Start small. Begin by weaving locality into your lessons — any effort constitutes commendable progress. For instance, in a language arts poetry lesson, explore the works of community poets who write about the beauty of their neighbourhood. Similarly, in a science class regarding biomes, delve deep into the environment in which your school resides on. This practice enables you to explore diverse ways of merging academic content with local context allowing the effectiveness of this pedagogical approach to unfurl naturally.

Map of haida gwaii

My personal journey with PBE began with modest steps within a third-grade math class. The topic was kilometres, and to explain the concept with real-world relevance, we took a virtual road trip around British Columbia. The classroom came alive with the map of the province, and we collectively measured distances between cities along the major highways. Among our destinations was Haida Gwaii — an archipelago known for its breathtaking natural scenery and historic totem poles crafted by the Haida Nation. At this stop on the map, an unexpected spark ignited. A student’s hand shot up with excitement. When called upon, she began to proudly share about her ancestral ties to the Haida Nation. This students excited monologue prompted a profound lesson on Haida culture. What had initially been a lesson on kilometres transformed into a beautiful testament to the interconnection of place and identity, underscoring the transformative potential of PBE.

2. Restructure the Classroom

As previously explored, PBE represents a departure from traditional educational norms, urging educators to expand their horizons on what education can look like. The physical classroom is not constrained to the four walls of a school. The teacher isn’t the only voice that should be heard within the learning community. Instead, the classroom comes from emergent education that can take place anywhere and students are empowered to speak their minds and help shape their learning community. It’s not only the structure of the classroom but how we build community together.

In order to effectively practice PBE one does not need to completely throw out the traditional organization of the classroom, just be mindful in how you can make little changes. I maintained many elements of a conventional classroom structure, one being organized rows of desks facing the front of the class — this order of desks greatly increased the productivity of the chatty students that I taught. One of the ways I took a PBE perspective in the structure of the classroom was by introducing dynamic changes in seating and special arrangements for specific activities. I orchestrated group work stations, held circle based discussions, and diversified my teaching positions within the room. Beyond the classroom walls I contemplated alternative learning environments by venturing outside for different lessons. A science lesson on energy unfolded on the playground as we discussed kinetic and potential energy in a real-world context. In a geometry lesson, we embarked on a neighbourhood stroll, spotting geometric shapes within our everyday surroundings. Even without curriculum-aligned outdoor sessions, occasional silent reading sessions outdoors offers a refreshing change of scenery. There are countless ways to slightly modify the structure of the classroom to integrate PBE.

Empowering students’ voices stands is a cornerstone of PBE. This tenet prompted me to reflect on the balance between my own voice and the voices of my students within our classroom. An integral facet of cultivating classroom community through a PBE lens involves co-constructing expectations with students. Commencing lessons, I would encourage students to articulate their envisioned expectations. This small act extends beyond expectation setting; it empowers students to become active members of their learning community where their voices are heard and respected. I recognize the value of harmonizing my guidance with their perspectives, nurturing an environment where collaboration and mutual respect thrive.

3. Make Time in Your Schedule

Place-based education is often conceptualized as being integrated across various subjects and curricula. However, the idealized image of a teacher orchestrating flawless synchronized cross-curricular activities that seamlessly connect students’ experience with local knowledge remains somewhat elusive, particularly for beginning teachers. For many students and teachers, PBE remains a novel approach to engagement with education. Infusing this model of learning into conventional subjects can initially feel awkward and disjointed. Allocating dedicated time within the class schedule for PBE offers educators an opportunity to experiment with this pedagogical approach and cultivate a deeper familiarity.

When I began my teaching journey, there were countless PBE activities that I wanted to share with my class, yet I grappled with integrating them into my existing subject areas. It was with this frustration that I opted for a paradigm shift, reserving a portion of each week for PBE specific lessons. My intention was to make space within our schedule for our classroom community to immerse ourselves in place and explore our interconnectedness with the world around us. Within this dedicated time slot, we were able to engage in a PBE unit I had co-created and look more closely at community dynamics, local nature, and historical narratives. Through this focused work our classroom community was able to engage in lessons entered on place that might not have organically found their way into other subject areas.

4. Connecting with Different Aspects of Place

Learning from “place” can be a lofty and abstract notion. The essence of “place” itself is multifaceted and demands a nuanced perspective. The definition of “place” often converges at an intersection of various socio-spatial dimensions. Embracing place in regards to PBE encapsulates geography, history, culture, environment, and lived experience. Given the expansive and intricate nature of place, it proves to be advantageous to deconstruct the specific facets you intent to explore within your classroom. This deliberate segmentation offers a clearer way to navigate the educational potential within your unique community.

For my classroom, I chose to explore place through three distinct facets: community, nature, and local history. Within the dedicated PBE unit that I made time for in our class schedule, we engaged in a range of lessons and activities that corresponded to these three aspects of place. By exploring these segmented ideas of place, I witnessed students make connections of place to other subject areas and aspects of their lives.

To initiate our exploration of community, we began by thinking about the essence of this foundational concept. Through interactive class discussions, students thought about the components that constitute a community. These dialogues nudged students to reflect on their own neighbourhood, fostering a deeper awareness of its elements. As an extension of this lesson, I had students sketch a map of their community to help them reflect on the most important elements of their immediate surroundings. This activity could evolve by having students periodically add to their maps, incorporate envisioned changes to their neighbourhood, or invite students to make out other communities they feel a bond with, such as their places of origin.

In learning about local history, I aimed to take a holistic approach when diving into the history of North Vancouver. Oftentimes we are taught about our nation’s history within school, but rarely are we given a chance to learn about the events that took place within the very place we grew up. With this in mind, we began by learning about the Indigenous land upon which our school resides — the ancestral territory of the Squamish Nation. Acknowledging my role as a non-indigenous educator, I consulted local educational resources to ensure a culturally sensitive approach when teaching about the Squamish Nation. Keeping within these respected guidelines we practiced land acknowledgments, learned greetings and local plant names in the Squamish language, and read stories that relied information about Squamish culture. Our historical lessons continued by tracing the evolution of North Vancouver, particularly explore the role of roads in shaping our present-day city. Learning about local history underscored the integral role of preceding generations in sculpting the very space we inhabit today.

The school where I taught had an incredible forest located in the back of the school grounds. Majestic cedars, nurturing nuts logs, and a tapestry of flora made this space a beautiful area for PBE. Prior to integrating PBE into our schedule, outdoor time primarily served as an outlet for expending energy. Reconfiguring students’ perception of nature from merely a recreational space to a place of profound learning took much time and patience. We began by introducing ourselves to our natural neighbours by learning about local flora and fauna. Land acknowledgments and learning Squamish language for local plants further enriched these lessons. We also embraced the practice of “sit spots,” wherein students immersed themselves within specific areas of the forest — an embodiment of a quintessential PBE approach.

5. Teaching as a Student

PBE embodies the idea that you, the educator, are a fellow learner alongside your students. Embrace the notion that you are continually evolving and gaining insights beside your students. Be attuned to the lessons that unfold through community interactions and remain receptive to the wisdom your students impart within your shared learning space. Embrace humility by acknowledging that you do not know everything and that your knowledge may be limited. This opens is fundamental, for your journey as an educator mirrors the lifelong pursuit of learning you seek to cultivate in your students.

Stepping into the role of a new teacher in this ever evolving educational landscape can feel overwhelming. The path is marked by missteps, pedagogical uncertainties, and self-doubt. Yet, these challenges are juxtaposed by moments of fulfillment by witnessing your students’ responses to your dedication to transformative education. My journey with PBE has encompassed all of those complicated feelings. As I continue on this teaching journey I promise to continue to explore, reflect, and experiment. I promise to teach as though I am a student and embrace the idea that the world itself is my classroom.


The following articles are some of my most treasured Place-Based Education resources that help guide my understanding and practice.

Smith, G. (2002). Place-Based Education: learning to be where we are. Phi Delta Kappan.

Sobel, D. (2004). Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities (2nd ed.). Vermont: Orion Society.
Sobel, D. (1999). Beyond Ecophobia (Vol. 1). : Nature Literary Series.

What is Place-Based Education and Why Does it Matter? Getting Smart.

Lucy Clothier is a newly certified teacher who has just spent the past year sailing the coast of California and teaching online. She is looking forward to starting a new chapter of teaching at the Sea to Sky School District in British Columbia this fall.