Place-Based Learning in Middle School: Putting Scientific Principles to Work in your Community

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“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” -John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, 1911.

We hope that you are enjoying your summer!  As teachers, we realize that your mind is never far from your classroom, even if your body is lounging on a chair next to *insert appropriate body of water here*. As science teachers, especially, even the sounds of waves and splashing children have entirely different meaning to us than to those in other walks of life.  You might hear water hitting the beach and start pondering frequency, wavelength, and longshore drift and before you know it your mind starts generating lesson plans.  Teachers are constantly mining personal experiences for ideas to help students connect what they learn to the world around them.

Making these connections is infinitely easier for our students if we are able to take them beyond the confines of the schoolroom. While the majority of us would hesitate to invite our students on summer vacation with us, we work hard to provide real-world, authentic learning opportunities for them. When students embark on a nature walk around the school grounds, enjoy a guest speaker from the local community, experience a well-planned outdoor education trip, or gather data for citizen-scientist programs science concepts come alive in a way that even the best textbooks can never match.

Many teachers are taking this experiential learning a step further and challenging their students to advance beyond experience into action through Place-Based Learning (PBL) opportunities.  The intent of PBL is to bring students’ attention to a community problem, develop partnerships within the community and beyond, and connect students to their environment on an emotional as well as intellectual level. In the process of these investigations, students are learning key science concepts, conducting authentic research, and refining their communication and collaboration skills.

Middle school students at the Global Learning Charter Public School in New Bedford, MA researched animals in the local zoo during a unit on ecology and environmental standards. They shared their reports with the Buttonwood Zoo and that material was later used by the zoo to create conservation signage for zoo patrons. These same students, now in high school, became concerned about plastic pollution in local waterways and did a number of presentations on the  ‘Perils of Plastics” to the school and also the New Bedford community on Save the Planet day at the Buttonwood Zoo. The students have also formed a partnership with the Buzzards Bay Coalition (BBC) to create games and pamphlets to educate the community about the life cycles and local habitats for American Eels.  They continue to help monitor the health of the Acushnet River and present student-designed lessons on water quality and the American Eel at BBC local events and at the zoo.

As shown in the above examples, PBL can have long-term and far-reaching benefits for students, schools, and communities. However, many teachers are hesitant to embark on these projects due to time constraints, pressures from standardized test curriculums, and lack of funding for buses and program fees. They are not given mentors who have used PBL and can often be left to design and struggle with the planning on their own. If teachers are to embrace PBL they need help in doing so.

If you are interested in incorporating place-based learning into your lessons, we suggest that you start small, work with school families and administration, and gradually work to develop ties and partnerships with community members.  Successful relationships with the community are the foundation of successful PBL.  Encouraging students to enter into local and national contests accesses their natural competitive spirit and helps them to develop partnerships with organizations to obtain the resources to address the problems they have identified. For example, to further the American Eels project described above, students successfully applied to Dr. Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program and the school now has two Roots and Shoots clubs on campus.

Steps to Incorporating Place-Based Learning

1) Select a local environmental issue that is interesting and relevant to you, your students, and the community.  

2) Plan an inquiry project for your students that connects the work of the community organization with your standards and their local realities.

3) Identify parents,  local or national organizations that address the issue and connect with them in person and online. Ask them to speak with your students and provide learning opportunities for them.

4) Include an action component in the project plan, i.e. personal change, public awareness campaign, art installation, etc. Some organizations have campaigns or projects already established and will welcome your assistance.

If you have experience with place-based learning, please share your stories and advice for other teachers in the comments below.  

Diana Cost and Elizabeth Orlandi are members of NSTA’s Middle Level Science Teaching Committee. We would like to give credit to and thank Dr. Jesse Bazzul,  PhD, for developing the STEPs to Place-Based Learning. His guidance was invaluable to us in crafting this program.

Cover of the April/May 2016 issue of Science ScopeGet more involved with NSTA!

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6 Responses to Place-Based Learning in Middle School: Putting Scientific Principles to Work in your Community

  1. Ashley Burnett says:

    I’m a PBL newbie. For the projects that I am doing in class, I am finding creating project ideas is sometimes overwhelming. I’m not always inspired to develop project ideas. How do you encourage students to create their own projects? Is there a brainstorming process that is associated with the steps?

  2. Steven Semken says:

    NSTA members might be interested to know that there is open-access literature on diverse examples of practice and authentic assessment for PBE in science. The Journal of Geoscience Education published two entire issues on teaching in the context of place and culture in Earth and environmental science in 2014, and these can be freely accessed on the JGE website at and

  3. Diana Cost says:

    I usually will introduce a topic with a concept map asking students to add one thought each. That gets them started toward broader questions. But above all if you are a “newbie”, start small and as Steven says, there are resources out there for you. The best ones are usually community based. Zoos, Museums, Colleges and Universities, state parks all have community outreach goals and they love helping teachers. Just look for the outreach education coordinators.

  4. Meredith says:

    In my classroom, PBL and Service Learning go hand-in-hand. I use the IPARDE (Investigation, Preparation, Action, Reflection, Demonstration, Evaluation) cycle to guide my students through this work. generationOn provides some useful resources to support this process:

  5. Amy Lilienfeld says:

    “Source water assessments” and wellhead protection plans can be great resources for very local place-based, problem-based teaching. (These SHOULD be able to be obtained from your local water utility as they are supposedly public information but may be difficult to obtain). Both of these, however, show the area to be protected (i.e., for groundwater, called a “wellhead protection area”), an inventory of potential contaminant sources and a wealth of other local information (e.g., geology, soils). Students can also do fieldwork and consider the types of contaminants generated by different types of land use.
    Also some really great resources and activities related to the Woburn, Mass drinking water contamination case, made famous in movie “A Civil Action”, may be found at:
    have fun and a great school year!

  6. Megan Wagaman says:

    As a preservice teacher with growing ideas, place-based and project-based learning are two systems I want to incorporate in my classroom. I appreciate the listed steps to help keep my process organized. Although I have never taught using place-based, I have learned through community connections and projects. I love this hands-on type of learning!
    How do you implement big projects in smaller communities? Besides working with the zoo, what sort of projects have been successful for you before?

    Thank you for sharing!
    Megan Wagaman
    Wartburg College 2020
    Science Methods 385
    Dr. Michael Bechtel

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