Why This Work Really Matters


During my childhood, my family lived a short bike ride away from a small creek that was a tributary to a large river that eventually fed into the Chesapeake Bay. My brothers and I would join the other neighborhood kids on our bikes and head to the creek to “explore”. The creek sat at the bottom of a hill. We would perch our bikes at the top of the hill, jump on, and let gravity take us swiftly to the bottom, feet raised up, for there was no need to pedal. What an exhilarating ride it was! At the bottom of the hill, the treasures of the creek awaited us. We would catch minnows and crayfish, practice skipping rocks on the surface, and wade in the cool, clear water.

The hill and the section of the creek we visited so often as children stood on property that is now fenced off and privately owned. Neighborhood children can no longer access it. However, for me, those memories are still very clear and very much a part of who I am.

We can all think back to our own childhood and recall vivid memories or places that meant something to us. These memories and experiences contribute to our sense of place. Sense of place is defined slightly differently by those in different fields, but in general, aspects of ecological, social, cultural, and historical identity all contribute to a person’s sense of place. Wendell Berry, a well-known American bioregionalist once stated “if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are”.

I am sometimes asked why I have chosen to emphasize place-based education in my university level coursework for preservice teachers. As someone who teaches in the field of biological and environmental science, I look at place-based education from an environmental perspective. A strong sense of place fosters environmental stewardship. Environmental stewardship is a cornerstone for change. People will not protect what they don’t care about. Much of a person’s interest in conservation and protection of environmental community resources stems from a connection to these places and a desire to protect them from threats, either real or perceived. A growing body of research suggests that sense of place is linked to our natural surroundings. Early exploration in natural surroundings during childhood is a key ingredient in developing a strong sense of place, and as my time in university teaching goes on, I am seeing students who had less and less exposure to these types of experiences in their childhood. Young children are typically spending more and more of their time inside. I am beginning to see the results of this shift in my preservice teachers.

One class that I teach is a life science course for elementary education majors. For the past several years, I have taught this course at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, utilizing the zoo grounds for field studies such as water quality and soil analysis, and also utilizing the zoo collections for our study of the animal kingdom. Almost all class periods have an outdoor component; we are typically outdoors for 30 minutes to two hours depending on our tasks for the day. Often, when we are outside, I will have the class pause after a hands-on activity so that I can clarify concepts or connect ideas together. These conversations take place wherever we happen to be, and I simply ask the students to sit on the ground in a circle when we have these discussions. The last time I taught this course, I had a student in the class who would not sit on the grass because she was terrified of what might be “living or crawling there”. She was so unfamiliar with the local fauna that she truly thought that there might be dangerous animals where we were sitting. I recall one class period when we were outdoors in a forested part of the zoo property, and a student was concerned about possible bear attacks. Another was petrified when a deer ran past us — “deer are predators, aren’t they?”

I teach three different courses in which I have students read The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. This book outlines the issues created by the lack of place-based nature experiences by today’s youth. He uses the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the divide between children and the outdoors. Consider this quote from a preservice student of mine taken from a reaction paper he wrote after reading Louv’s book:

Why should children go outside when they can experience what nature is like halfway across the world looking at their computer screen? Sure they won’t get the actual “feeling” of being there, but if they don’t go out in nature how can we expect them to know the difference?

Now consider my reaction:

I really disagree with that. I think if people are only exposed to nature through a computer screen, then no one is going to care about what’s out there, and then we will end up with no natural world at all- and I don’t want to live like that! People have to be exposed to things to gain an appreciation for them. If children don’t appreciate the natural world through experience, then we are going to end up with no clean water, no clean air, and no other living things on earth.

This particular student told me several times throughout the course of the semester that he did not have many outdoor experiences growing up, and he never really developed a strong sense of place about his community. Might his written reaction to Louv’s book been different if he had? I dare to think so. Research suggests that the two most important factors in determining whether a student will become a citizen with a strong sense of place and with a strong stewardship ethic toward the environment are early experiences in nature and an adult whom they trust to expose them to such experiences. I want my preservice teachers to be able to give their young students both of these.

Teacher preparation in the science disciplines — and K-12 education itself — is not all about science content. The educational system in the United States has placed too much emphasis on the content itself. Our educational institutions have become part of the problem. Students would be much better off if we followed the Finnish example. When compared to other countries, students in Finnish schools have consistently scored at or near the top in both literacy and mathematics. The United States typically scores somewhere in the middle. Where many schools in the United States have completely abolished recess, students at a typical Finnish school complete a 45 minute lesson and then have a 15 minute period to spend outside. Environmental education is encouraged, and a large portion of classroom time is spent in experiential learning settings, outside in natural areas or at places within their communities.

Although the United States is nowhere near as progressive as Finland when it comes to place-based education or environmental education, many types of “green school” programs are in place across the country; some of these are meant to be local or statewide, while others are more national in scope. The state of Maryland has a thriving Green Schools program that is considered by many to be one of the most rigorous. Many other states have followed Maryland’s model for their own Green Schools programs. The Maryland program is guided by the work of Hoody & Lieberman, who advocate for using the environment as an integrating context (EIC) as a method of teaching. The program has met with much success, as a 2010 research article published in the Journal of Applied Environmental Education & Communication demonstrates. In general, students from Green Schools outperform students in non-Green schools on state standardized tests. Isn’t this what we have been waiting to hear? Place-based education can help students achieve on those standardized tests that we are spending so much time and money on! Administrators and policy makers, are you listening? Environmental education based on local issues can help students perform at a higher level! The question that I pose here (and many of my students over the past several years have as well) is: If we have data such as this, why aren’t policy makers and many school administrators listening? Why don’t more schools adopt this model?

In a perfect world, K-12 education would consist, in large part, of applying the content to meaningful situations that matter to the communities that students are living in. It’s about putting the content in the context of place so that students can make informed decisions about those places. But what will happen when students no longer have any context of place? Who will make informed decisions about those places when no one knows anything about them? We won’t care about what we can’t name. Students have to develop an association with their surroundings to care about them. Robert Pyle, referring to his connection to place in his community as a boy, wrote about a small irrigation canal near his home that he loved to explore in. He stated that “everyone needs a ditch”. I had my “ditch” as a child, but how many more of my students will? What happens when no one does?

I recently published a piece in Community Works Journal that described a project involving preservice teachers and elementary level students analyzing the health of a local stream and considering how humans and the communities they live in affect water quality. I won’t repeat the findings here, but both the undergraduates and the elementary level students were excited and invigorated about teaching and learning after completing the project. The stream became their “ditch”. Maybe that is part of the answer — if students don’t have a ditch of their own, perhaps we need to introduce them to one. That is why my work matters and that is why I am here.

Sarah Haines is a professor of science education and biology at Towson University, Towson MD. She has been cultivating an interest in environmental and place-based education in her students for the past 16 years. Sarah is also a past president of the state environmental education association and, as a result of her place-based education efforts, a recipient of the University System of Maryland’s Regent’s Award for Community Outreach. Sarah is a regular contributor to Community Works Journal.

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