top of page
  • emilyflaherty

Idea Exchange

Why Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences (MWEEs) are Important

Emily Flaherty is Ocean Literacy Educator and School to Sea Coordinator,

Salem Sound Coastwatch, Salem MA

In a NOAA MWEE students construct ideas to create their own knowledge base of what is true and what is meaningful by connecting to their local environment through observation and experience. Such experiences provide a sense of attachment that leads to meaningful stewardship.

As our education ebbs and flows, with standards based instruction and one-size fits all teaching and learning, educators know that at the roots of why they are teachers results from their desire to provide students experiences that help them to construct meaning and purpose to the world around them. There is a deep need for teachers to feel supported in this by their administrators and colleagues and through such professional development opportunities as Learning to Steward the Gulf.

Construct the Learning! (Aka Constructivism)

There has been nothing more empowering to me as an educator than seeing a student immersed in learning and enjoying it, however, there has been nothing more empowering to me as an outdoor educator than seeing students immersed in place and constructing their own meaning to the text in a book. As Jean Piaget stated:

“The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.” – Jean Piaget, The Origins of Intelligence in Children, 1953.

An example from The Private Universe Project1 may help illustrate: Project staff interviewed Ivy League graduates asking them how a log from a tree can become so massive through the process of photosynthesis. The results were interesting to watch, as students from prestigious universities were not able to explain this universal process1. They were adamant that carbon dioxide does not have mass and cannot be the source of biomass in the tree. The Project went on to interview middle school students before and after an in depth series of lessons on photosynthesis. The teacher explicitly told their middle students that carbon dioxide and water combine in the process to create glucose as food for the plant. Students still did not understand that carbon dioxide has mass and contributes to the biomass of a tree. In the end the researchers had the students observe dry ice – able to see the carbon dioxide they finally accepted that mass was there.

During such moments students can construct their own meaning and explanation to the real world and phenomena all around them. In this way teaching becomes creating the experiences.

Photosynthesis is just one of the hundreds of concepts that we cognitively grapple with as build an understanding of the world around us. With learning opportunities missed it is inevitable some misunderstanding and/ or false conclusions will result. Such results may have significant individual and social consequences as we struggle to meet the challenges of climate change.

Unsolidify the Misunderstandings!

There are many ways for students to form misconceptions whether it be an idea that was simply heard and filed away as fact, an assumption that was made from an observation or simply someone telling them something that was untrue.

Misconceptions aren’t all bad as they provide an opportunity to challenge students to rethink an idea about something they thought was true and lead them to a deeper understanding.

Through meaningful experiences, those grounded in intentional goals and allowing of freedom of exploration, students will be able to rebuild their ideas of the world. This is the most efficient way to undo misconceptions. This takes time, intention and immersion in place. Using the above as an example, the logic of the process follows.

The intentional learning goal: Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for the role of photosynthesis in the cycling of matter and flow of energy into and out of organisms (Next Generation Science Standards).

Freedom of exploration: immerse students in place to investigate and find examples of organisms that they think are photosynthesizing – what evidence are they using to determine this?

Grapple with the misunderstanding: what role does CO2 play in photosynthesis: How does matter and energy flow through the process of photosynthesis?

Use the processes of science: students form a question to investigate, using the learning goal to guide them, plan and carry out an investigation, analyze and interpret data and construct an argument from the evidence.

Forming the question: How do plants survive only on water, light, and CO2? Does carbon dioxide have mass and contribute to photosynthesis? “If a plant doesn’t get air will it live?” Using the Claims – Evidence – Reasoning framework can be helpful in middle school and younger students. High school students should follow a scientific research structure.

Support student grappling: What if their question still doesn’t get them to the end point set by the intentional learning goal? Bring back the dry ice (metaphorically) – show them the mass that exists, as seeing is usually believing.

Through this intentional process, students build a deeper understanding of reality based on observation and analysis. In other words, they learn scientific inquiry may apply to many phenomena beyond photosynthesis.

Make it Local!

The place brings it all together; it weaves each aspect of learning from all disciplines together into one. Using math, science, art, language arts, geography, and history to view the world through the same lens create a vivid and lively picture that deepens student’s understanding of the world around them. We see the excitement of students in place when they have these rich experiences and take them to the classroom and beyond making connections and building a sense of awareness that wasn’t there before. When we understand our place – how the storm drains travel throughout it, how the landscape has changed over time or how the slope of the riverbank affects the watershed – any new authentic learning will enhance how we steward the place we call home.

Suggested Further Sources


John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and David Sobel are all pioneers in the field at bringing this thinking to the forefront in the education community.


Piaget’s The Origins of Intelligence in Children referenced above.

Sobel, David, and Gregory A. Smith. (2010). Place-and Community-Based Education in Schools. New York: Routledge.

Keely, Page. (2016). Science Formative Assessment. Corwin and NSTA Press.


A good primer and background on the theorists:

A personal favorite on the place-based education:

1 Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics created The Private Universe Project. The Project has produced a 9-part workshop series derived from the work pioneered in Project STAR (Science Teaching through its Astronomical Roots, a high school physical science course based on astronomy) and is an extension of its award-winning video, A Private Universe, which documents students' astronomical ideas and how they change. The Private Universe Project Teacher Workshops alert science teachers to the problems posed by their students' preconceived ideas and encourage teachers to devise solutions to these problems tailored to students' specific needs. To learn more, go to:


12 views0 comments
bottom of page