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Learning Local: Embracing Place-Based Education

Susan Wolfe

Boise, Idaho

Students observing wildlife. Photo by Xochitl Garcia

In the Winter IdEEA Newsletter, we introduced the concept, importance, and benefits of Place-Based Education (PBE), which is the process of using the local community and environment as a true, authentic basis for our development of teaching skills and concepts. In this blog, we examine how to turn the learning potential of a global experience into local opportunities.

I recently returned from the Galapagos Islands as part of a professional development fellowship with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. What a fantastic experience! The islands are located on both the Southern and Northern sides of the equator where 3 ocean currents converge. The unique plants and animals (some found nowhere else in the world) in these different habitat zones are astonishing. A visit to the Galapagos Islands inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and remain a world-renowned living laboratory. Thankfully, one does not have to travel a long distance to see the “uniqueness of place.” The “local” concept should be harnessed to connect the power of place to powerful learning for our students. While it might be difficult for students in landlocked Idaho to understand how plastic affects the ocean ecosystem, students can see similar effects by examining how plastic in our local rivers contributes to a global problem. Habitat loss? Invasive species? It all can be identified at a local level. As I share my experience in the Galapagos Islands with students, there is a multitude of learning connections that can be transferred to local learning. Since birds are beautiful, and interesting, and serve as a great way to teach global science concepts using a local lens, they are used for this example below.

The place to begin will be unique for you. Since PBE is flexible, it can occur in a variety of settings and experiences such as school yards, field trips, or your local rivers and parks. Look for the possibilities that offer local richness and that connect to your students’ big concepts. Here are some steps to get started on your PBE journey.

Implementing Place-Based Education

  1. Curriculum Standards

Begin with analyzing the state standards and the other pertinent (state/national) teaching requirements. For example, the concept of migration is an “enduring understanding.” The Galapagos has 29 bird species that migrate. Idaho has well over 100. When students understand the concept of migration, they can transfer this big idea to people, animals, and ideas. Example: Bird Migration: Standards (Science Trek)

  1. Using Guided Inquiry

Sharing images of Galapagos birds using a critical viewing strategy like See, Think, Wonder, Teaching creates curiosity, gives practice for thoughtful observation, and sets the stage for deeper inquiry. Using Google Jamboard or Post It notes, students may make observations like: I see different sizes and colors of bird feet. I wonder if this helps the bird survive. What adaptations do birds have in Idaho? I wonder if birds in Idaho are endangered. I wonder if Idaho birds are affected by climate change.

As students share, they can be asked to justify their thinking. Discussions occur naturally where vocabulary like “adaptations,” “endangered species,” bird identification, and anatomy can be introduced. These informal discussions are a great way to see what piques your students' interests. By observing the excitement level and thoughts generated by students, this “fishing expedition” can be an effective way to guide your unit's development.

Red Footed Boobie, Galapagos Island, 2022. Photo by Susan Wolfe

  1. Designing an Essential Question

Guided inquiry effectively taps into student curiosity, and, as the “See, Think, Wonders” (link above) are shared, students will likely notice patterns. This will naturally segue to essential question creation. Essential Questions (sometimes called “driving questions”) provide teacher direction for unit design and experiences. Strong essential questions tighten the learning framework and provide the purpose for the learning. The best questions are open-ended, require deep research, and often lead to more questions. Although teachers can solely create the question ahead of time, this is an opportunity to teach/guide students in the design of their own high-quality and engaging questions. Learning and engagement become incredibly powerful and long-lasting when the students are taught how to ask effective questions. A process called the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is a “structured method for generating and improving questions.” Developed by The Right Question Institute, the QFT builds the skill of asking questions as an essential — yet often overlooked — lifelong learning skill that “allows people to think critically, feel greater power and self-efficacy, and become more confident and ready to participate in civic life.” Within this process of producing, improving, and prioritizing their questions, students can create an overarching essential question, such as:

  • How does climate change impact birds in Idaho?

  • What can we learn from birds?

  • How do birds play an important role in the environment?

  1. Seek Interdisciplinary Connections

Interdisciplinary teaching makes connections between concepts and ideas across disciplines. Students can solve problems differently, examine an issue with multiple perspectives, and incorporate other subject area strengths. Middle- and high-school teachers can join forces by collaborating on units of instruction. A great way to get started is single-subject integration, such as literature. For example, Wilma on the Wing, by Boise State University biology student Anna Connington, tells the enchanting story of a little Wilson’s warbler. This small, yellow bird migrates between Mexico and Alaska, stopping at Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory. Inviting guest speakers, like Connington or someone from the local Audubon Society, not only supports the learning but builds local community relations and inspires students to learn about different career paths.

Author Anna Connington. Photo by Boise State University

  1. Field Experiences and Data Collection

Field experiences pack an academic and social experience punch. They are vital to authentic learning and provide your students with hands-on opportunities. And they serve as a perfect excuse for teaching data collection and integrating STEM. Research shows that students who participate in outdoor field experiences have higher grades, less absenteeism, and behavior infractions. But, best of all, they can inspire students to get involved in their community. Local organizations often are grappling with the same questions as your students. Contacting them (or better yet, having a student reach out with teacher oversight) and sharing the essential question and the goal of your project will often lead to an invitation for student participation. There are Citizen Science opportunities abound! Please note that field experiences don't have to take much organization or money. “Micro-field trips” can be excursions in the schoolyard, or within walking distance and be one class period long while still having the benefits. If you can, take the bus to the river, lake, marsh, or other outdoor trips to supplement your teaching criteria. But, if you can’t jump the bus, get your kids outside. The research supports it.

Students collecting data at a local park for the City Nature Challenge. Photos by Susan Wolfe

  1. Taking Action

As students delve deeper into the inquiry process, they will undoubtedly identify environmental issues and an opportunity to create original work for a public audience. Using our bird example, students collecting data on riparian habitats may learn that the loss of these habitats affects bird populations and migration. This might result in the launch of a social awareness campaign or restoration project. Just one project can effectively integrate writing, reading, presenting, math, science, and geography for an authentic purpose and audience. In every community, there are a variety of institutions, clubs, organizations, and individuals that are eager to provide real-world experiences to students. In fact, refer to the IdEEA webpage for resources.

Since the “call to action” is the most powerful piece to PBE, it merits a detailed focus. Therefore, the IdEEA Newsletter will be featuring educators around Idaho that are effectively utilizing PBE and serve as excellent models for educators wanting to harness the power of place in their educational setting.

Ark, Vander Tom, et al. The Power of Place: Authentic Learning through Place-Based Education. ASCD, 2020.

Minero, Emelina. “Place-Based Learning: A Multifaceted Approach.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 19 Apr. 2016,

Sobel, David. Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. Orion Magazine, 2017.

Zych, Ariel. “Birding as a Gateway to Environmental Education.” Science Friday, 18 Aug. 2016,


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