Search form


ImagePlace-Based Education
Turns Towns into
Classrooms Work


Rather than leaving students in the classroom to learn about science or history, some schools are letting kids tackle real-world issues in their community through the place-based education approach. Place-based projects, whether broad or narrowly-focused, get students more involved in their learning and expand their perspectives on their communities as they re-energize teachers as well. Included: Explore a handful of place-based education projects.

What do chickens in Vermont, streetcars in Oregon, and prairie grass in Missouri have in common? All were at the center of place-based education projects in which students used their communities as classrooms to study real-life issues.

We really try to help teachers see it [place-based education] as not another unit; it is actually a way to integrate different disciplines, said Jennifer Cirillo, the manager of the Promise of Place Web site and director of professional development for Shelburne Farms, an environmental education center. Its not different from great teaching pedagogy. Students are still learning about math, science, language arts, and social studies. Its a way to add relevance to the curriculum.


The goal of place-based education is to engage students in projects that relate to their lives, connect them with their communities, and involve them in real-world issues. Often the projects provide data or labor for local officials.

Most teachers are looking for students to be really engaged, Cirillo noted. The more of this type of education teachers do, the more students are engaged because they see it as relevant to their lives.

Not only does place-based education make learning more personal to students, but anecdotes suggest it may help students overall performance as well. We can see place-based education does not negatively affect test scores, said Cirillo. Students especially do better on comprehension pieces, because they have been exposed to different forms of literature, and in science, because they actually did some hands-on work.

The more of this type of education teachers do, the more students are engaged because they see it as relevant to their lives.

Place-based education works for all grade levels. For kindergartners, the place might be the classroom, Cirillo told Education World. As students get older, their place is the globe, she continued. It can help middle and high school teachers help students understand how the community works, so then students can transfer that knowledge and those skills to ancient communities and other opportunities. It helps them understand what needs to change so we can improve upon our own place.

In South Burlington, Vermont, for example, seventh graders at Frederick Tuttle Middle School will be spending their first trimester developing a management plan for a natural area, something the city could really use, Cirillo said. Its service learning as well as placed-based. They [local officials] will be using the data they collected in the field. Students picked a local natural area and will be looking at biological diversity, writing and reading about their place, researching how their local leaders make decisions, and learning about the towns governance structure.

Often local residents embrace the projects. You do have to leave the school and talk to other people, Cirillo told Education World. But once teachers start, they find they are overwhelmed with community support. They are able to bring in community resources.


Projects often involve environmental, civic, or historical topics and frequently serve to introduce students to the local government infrastructure. Students often get so involved in their topics that they become resident experts. Middle school students at Southwest Charter School in Portland, Oregon -- which focuses on environmental issues, civics, and art -- became key contributors to a Metro Regional Government campaign to reactivate a streetcar line.

Students found abandoned tracks in a local park while working on a project with the city to determine if Oregon white oak trees could be considered heritage trees. After some research, students learned that the tracks were part of the former Willamette streetcar line and that the Metro Regional Government was doing an environmental feasibility study and talking to residents about the possibility of restarting a streetcar line.

They asked if we could help with research and data collection, middle school teacher Sarah Anderson told Education World. But actually they needed more help with public relations.

Streetcar Podcasts

Click here to access the Southwest Charter Schools podcasts about the streetcar project.

The streetcar project was getting a cold reception from some Portland residents who did not want the cars passing their homes. After talking with Shaundra Brown, president of the United Streetcar Company, Inc., the students made a podcast explaining the project. They also made podcasts on the history of streetcars in the Portland area and transportation modeling, which was a discussion of how Metro Regional Government decides where and how to implement transportation. A staff member from the local NPR radio station gave students tips on how to make their podcasts more interesting.

I think they enjoyed putting together the podcasts most, Anderson said. We had kids whose presentation skills soared after this project.


Students also built models of streetcars based on blueprints and even attended an hour-long presentation in Metro Regional Government executive offices about the campaign.

Metro Regional Government was continuing to hold community meetings about the project and because it is a publicly-funded agency students were able to get copies of letters from people for and against the project with their names blacked out. Students read the letters and took turns arguing a letter writers opinion in the classs version of a town forum.

I really liked that students had the opportunity to have adults present to them about real issues -- the same presentations they gave to adults. They had the opportunity to be taken seriously, and asked insightful questions, said Anderson.


Students in Missouri get expert help on placed-based projects from staff members at the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Staff members work with at least 50 schools in the state on projects related to the local environment, including planting native grasses and monitoring the water quality in local streams, said Bob Coulter, director of the ecology center. The Botanical Garden has a field outreach center with 34 acres of land, 12 of which are restored prairie environment. This way, students can get experience with a prairie, Coulter told Education World.

I really liked that students had the opportunity to have adults present to them about real issues -- the same presentations they gave to adults.

A number of schools are working with the center to re-introduce native plants, such as prairie grass, to areas around schools and other locations. Students study the native plants affect on the environment, their role in the areas history, and develop ways to encourage the community to plant more native plants.

This is not just about dirt-digging, but helping students understand the benefits of native plants, Coulter told Education World. Native plants do a better job of supporting the ecosystem and pollinating. A lot of prairie plants also have deeper roots, so they help water percolate into the soil and help reduce erosion.

Other classes concentrate on cleaning up local creeks and streams and monitoring water quality. Sixth graders check oxygen levels, and record the types of organisms in the water -- more complex organisms indicate better water quality. They learn what they can do to create healthy ecosystems, Coulter told Education World. Students report their water quality findings to state officials, who rely on the data as an early warning system for potential problems. This helps them [students] see themselves as pieces in the puzzles [of their environment], Coulter said.


Other places are as small as a classroom. A lesson about life cycles for first graders at Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont, helped some Somali Bantu boys bridge the gap between their old and new places.

Angela McGregor, an educator with Shelburne Farms' Sustainable Schools Project, worked on a lesson about Food Cycles in Our Community with a first-grade teacher at Lawrence Barnes, using chickens and eggs as examples of a food cycle. While most of the kids were excited about visiting the farm, the Somali children were usually very quiet, she said, and often shy in class. Most had spent time in refugee camps in Kenya before coming to the U.S.


It helps them understand what needs to change so we can improve upon our own place.

As a surprise one day, McGregor brought a chicken into the classroom. When I brought the chicken in, the Bantu students began talking excitedly about how they had chickens in the refugee camp in Kenya and it was their job to care for them, McGregor told Education World. They began comparing and contrasting this chicken and its life to their chickens in Kenya. Suddenly these students were teaching the rest of the class about chickens -- they were the experts!

Other students in the class began asking the boys from Somali questions about chickens. As an educator, I witnessed the power of connecting the curriculum to personal experience and place, said McGregor. Suddenly, the students saw themselves reflected in this lesson and in their new place in Burlington, Vermont, even though it is so far away from Africa.


The projects, whether broad or narrowly-focused, not only get students more involved in their learning and expand their perspectives on their communities, but re-energize teachers as well. Teachers say it is so exciting to see the kids engaged, especially at the middle-and high-school levels, Cirillo told Education World. And their colleagues often are impressed by what students are doing. It brings parents and community members into the schools as well.

The place-based approach also links them to their hometowns, Coulter added. They see that what they are learning has usefulness and interest to the community. Its learning about ways to make the community better.

They also can explore the roles local residents played in national issues. This year, students at Southwest Charter School are studying the history of the civil rights movement in Portland. We are seeking a grant to have a director and playwright come in to help us write a play based on local civil rights activities and leaders, Anderson said.

For McGregor, the place-based approach is logical and universally beneficial. Throughout my work there I experienced education through the lens of place, and it just made the most sense for everyone involved -- the teachers, students, community partners, and families, she said. Place-based education is inclusive and responsive to the unique needs of these students at this particular time in this special place.


Interdisciplinary Learning (Article Archive)
Education World Glossary: Service Learning