This is a time where the country faces many critical issues. The middle class is losing ground, our country continues to score low on the PISA regardless of our efforts to standardize education, and we have politicized and created fear around our environmental problems engaging less and less of the future generations. The effects on the environment and education are staggering. This is not to say to lose hope, place based education is a way to find balance in these areas, and even progress. In a small Maine town, a local conservation trust as created programs to help students learn, create community, environmental awareness and an affinity for conservation.
The adoption of Community Conservation at the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust (KCT) seemed like a logical move. After years of garnering the communities support to build its holdings, and effectively conserving over 2200 acres of properties that made Kennebunkport unique, they decided to use their holdings, to help build a stronger community. It was always clear what KCT was saving land from, it was now important to address what the Trust was saving it for. In a world where children were accumulating more and more screen time and less time out of doors, KCT saw the future clearly. If the youth in their community did not connect with their landscape, there would be no future for conservation organizations like the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, there would be nobody left to care.
Kennebunkport Conservation Trust worked to build a program working with the local elementary school in an effort to create a sense of place for the students of this area. The KCT education programs focused on connecting students with the natural landscape and community members, through experiential learning on their properties. Later realizing that the local high school was in need of enriching experiences, KCT reached out to Kennebunk High School (KHS,) creating a partnership using the conserved lands as an outdoor learning lab for the students of KHS. Connecting KHS students to community members and trust members alike, as well as teaching them about the environment and the rich history of the land around them. KCT’s Trust in Education program strives to create deep learning experiences that use conserved land to change lives for the better.
An original partnership with the Alternative Education students of KHS was very successful. The students built the Learning Trail. On this mile-long interpretive trail, they not only learned STEM skills by designing and building bridges and the physical trail itself, but also touched on environmental science and local history as they did the research for the signs that lined the trail. This partnership with students that were not thriving in the traditional school setting sparked curiosity, and a love for the land among the participants. Students involved in the project that were not graduation bound, are now graduated from high school and are gainfully employed. Some still walk and care for the trail, remembering a life changing experience through community conservation and place based learning.
Another successful partnership developed between KCT and the environmental science class at KHS. This class has been studying the health of the Batson River, which runs through the preserve that houses KCT headquarters. The students come out to the Trust and do a macro invertebrate study as well as water quality testing on the river. KCT talks to the students about the importance of the river because its source is on another one of their preserves and it flows through many KCT properties before emptying out into the Goose Rocks Beach area of the Gulf of Maine. The information that they are collecting will help the Trust monitor any possible non-point source pollution issues as well as monitor the health of the river. It is also a major source of food and habitat for KCT conserved areas. While they are learning the importance of water systems in their books, to actually see the information they are reading about in action, and be a part of actual data collection, creates an excitement and involvement from these students that might not normally be there. Their eagerness is palpable when they discover a macro invertebrate in the very sensitive column, and their concern is intense when they discover pollutants as they did this fall. They can see in real time, the impact of nonpoint source pollution and have a greater understanding of what that means to them and their community.
These are two simple ways that Community Conservation and Placed Based Education are providing meaningful engagement of students. Why does this model work, and why is it so important to the future of both environmental education and conservation efforts? It is a deeper learning approach, it sparks a student’s natural curiosity, and it is relevant to, and empowers students in a way that classroom instruction struggles to do.
Finding a way to reach young people by connecting them to the place that they live in is critical in efforts to create more environmental awareness. Creating a tangible understanding of the land these students live on, builds avenues for them to extrapolate that knowledge to a more global understanding of environmental issues facing other people in other areas of our country and around the world. People connect more with what is happening in their backyard, than what is happening across the globe. By getting students out on a local river, studying what is living in it, they learn to care about its welfare, and see that they are inextricably connected to the land and all that lives there.
This kind of experiential learning cashes in on student’s natural curiosity. When students are simply fed information they need to know for a test, it becomes rote, or boring. When they are a part of creating the learning experience though, it gives them buy in, and a mutual respect for the project. They see that everyone is learning at the same time. No one person knows what is going to be there, no one person has the answer. As a group, teachers and students, question, test and draw conclusions together. This kind of education keeps students engaged as it puts them in charge of their learning. Instead of being expected to sit and learn by listening to a teacher explain things, these students take charge of their education. They see that questioning, and figuring out the answer are the very essence of learning. It creates a strong motivation to further their knowledge and gives them those 21st century skills that they will need to pursue future careers.
Real life application of the information that students are learning is key in connecting people and community. In the case of the Learning Trail project and the Batson River project, students felt that the work they were doing was for a greater purpose and would make a difference. It was empowering to know that the work they were doing mattered, and would be used by others, making their education relevant. This gave students confidence and a sense of responsibility to make decisions. Place Based Education in conjunction with Community Conservation connects their lessons to their community, creates the desire to do something for the common good, and rids students of “Ecophobia,” instead empowering them and community members to make a difference.
This teaching strategy gives the students problem solving skills, and real life applications to learning, leading students to more self-awareness, accountability and hopefully, stewardship. If students continue to be in front of a screen, and we continue to ignore them being there, we will lose ground on so many environmental issues that are now coming to a head. This quote from the National Environmental Education Advisory Council in its 2015 report to the US EPA says it all: “The future of Environmental education will depend on its ability to implement effective programs that reach local audiences with culturally appropriate topics while also addressing important environmental problems.”
It will be hard for students to care enough about the environment to study it or care for it if we do not get them on the land and give them first hand experiences that spark their passions, and give them a greater sense of purpose. In the end, Placed Based Education connects students, and gives them a greater connection to their communities and a greater connection to their land. It gives them a sense of ownership and empowers them to think critically and question, current environmental issues. This deeper connection to the land and their environment instills a stronger sense of social responsibilities and creates deeper learning. It has shown to increase academic performance and citizenship. Community Conservation and Placed Based Education may very well be the future of conservation and environmental education.
1. Washington, DC. Pew Research Center “The American Middle Class is Losing Ground” 12/9/2015. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/09/the-american-middle-class-is-losing-ground/
2. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “Program for International Student Assessment”. 2001. https://www.oecd.org/unitedstates/PISA-2012-results-US.pdf
3. Sobel, David. “Beyond Ecophobia.” Yes! Magazine, 2, Nov. 1998. http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/education-for-life/803
4. Note: to learn more about Community Conservation visit: http://www.landtrustalliance.org/topics/community-conservation
Leia has worked in education for over 20 years. After receiving a master's degree from Virginia Tech, she spent 6 years in the classroom teaching agri-science before moving into teacher training and curriculum development for Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom. She currently serves as the Director of Education for the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. Leia's commitment to community conservation in her almost seven-year tenure as Director of Education has led to a greater reach in the community and the expansion of the Trust in Education program. Leia is dedicated to creating stronger communities through education and reconnecting people with their natural landscape and local history, in order to instill them with a stronger sense of place and encourage a future of conservationists.