January 24, 2013

Making the Case for Place-based Learning

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Young children learning about trees on a ranger walkImagine if 1 in 4 students had the opportunity to learn science, history or civics in some of the best classrooms in our country—the Everglades, Gettysburg or Olympic National Park. What if in addition to lectures and textbooks, students got to study the ecology of wetlands or literally walk the grounds of one of the most defining battles of the Civil War?

That’s the vision–reinforced in the NPS Call to Action “Live & Learn” recommendation–that many of us came to discuss on a recent call hosted by the National Parks Conservation Association in October. We’re all in agreement that it’s time for the national park education community to come together in a serious way and make this goal a reality. The challenge is how.

Collectively, we have plenty of smart ideas that we’re ready to put into action. Some are more doable and achievable—like sharing best practices around the adoption of educational technology for field learning. Others will take time and resources—like identifying strategic opportunities to connect directly with school districts to combine resources.

But one of the biggest challenges we face is making the case for place-based learning to the broader education community. I was reminded of this when I attended an event last week hosted by the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time & Learning. The purpose of the event was to announce the TIME Collaborative, an initiative to create what’s called “expanded learning time” in five states. The idea is to lengthen and redesign the school day, which is correlated with impressive gains in student achievement. I heard phrases like “more and better learning” and “closing the achievement gap by closing the opportunity gap.”

While the practical focus is on in-school learning, there was recognition from the podium—speakers like Education Secretary Arne Duncan or Colorado Governor Hickenlooper—that the education community needs to bring in community resources, partners, and specialized providers. That’s us! Education reform must include the deeper educational opportunities that exist beyond the classroom as part of the solution to the engagement, retention, and achievement challenges facing our nation’s schools.

When you consider a NatureBridge program in the context of “more and better learning“—say, a student spends a week in Yosemite —I am confident they receive a healthy dose of “more”, with learning happening from breakfast to bedtime.  And for many students it is not just “better,” it is long remembered as “the best” experience – an anchor experience from their school years. And we have the results to prove it, too. So, why aren’t we, as a community, collaborating to create more of these experiences for students?

We must come together. The Centennial of the National Park Service is a great milestone to focus our efforts and the success of our nation’s schoolchildren is the greatest reason of all to act. We will be talking with our organization and our funders about how to make this happen. We invite you to do the same.

Vanessa Morel is the Washington DC Director for NatureBridge – a non-profit organization providing residential field science education in national parks for 30,000 students each year.

1 Comment

  1. Residing in proximity to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (an NPS unit that draws in excess of 5 million visitors per year), I am keenly aware of the educational challenges that are not currently being met. To tackle this issue, I and others in adjacent communities are working on a plan to recommend a state-of-the-art Visitor and Heritage Center within the boundaries of the DWGNRA. We envision a facility akin to that which was constructed at the Fort Necessity National Battlefield. Of the belief that a combination of revenue streams (Federal/State/Private and Section 106 Mitigation funds) can be brought to bear, we are hopeful that Park Management can be persuaded to accept a Heritage Center concept as a facilities-based approach that would be incorporated within the Park’s long-range interpretive plan (currently under review).

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