Could young students be Michigan’s next environmental stewards?


A 2023 Grand Valley State University study found that students who believe their classroom’s place-based project improved the community were more likely to take care of the environment in the future. Image: Chuck Lafferty/USFWS

By Daniel Schoenherr

A recent study from Grand Valley State University shows that teaching students outside can improve environmental education, but that it creates challenges for teachers.

The practice is called place-based education.

“It is when the place students live and learn becomes their classroom,” said Erica Hamilton, author of the study and the assistant vice president of academic affairs at Grand Valley State University.

Place-based education transforms lessons traditionally taught with textbooks into local discussions, Hamilton said. “Ottawa County would be my place…I might ask questions like, ‘Who was here before the Europeans? What Native American tribes were here?’”

Some schools in Michigan, like Lansing’s Wexford Montessori Academy, have a flexible curriculum that makes place-based education easier.

Montessori schools—a type of magnet school—give students ownership of their learning through specialized education, according to the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.

Place-based education is moving into more schools across America, said Kristan Small-Grimes, a Wexford magnet school teacher who has taught elementary-age students for years with place-based activities that reach beyond traditional textbooks.

“Teaching kids of different ages makes you take a step back and think about how you’re delivering information,” Small-Grimes said. “Students love it, other teachers think it’s great and parents are really supportive.”

While it’s important for kids to manage their boredom, online learning during the past few years has led to a low tolerance for having their time wasted, Small-Grimes said.

“We need place-based education today,” she said. “Reading chapter after chapter is undoable today.”

Once, her class went outside to an area of the schoolyard that experiences spring flooding. Students were drawn to all the mud. When some students suggested making docks for the areas that flooded, Small-Grimes helped them make a proposal and design for the docks.

The key to a successful place-based education is student engagement, Small-Grimes said. “If you’re dragging kids through a lesson because grown-ups said so, they’re not getting anything out of it.”

Hamilton studied two place-based education outcomes: environmental literacy—students’ understanding of their environment—and environmental stewardship—students’ willingness to take care of their environment.

Her study looked at two middle-school classrooms in Michigan with student outside community projects. One classroom participated in the Michigan DNR’s Salmon in the Classroom program. Students raised salmon in a classroom fish tank and released them into a local river.

The other classroom’s project, Good Practices Make Good Neighbors, taught students about their local ecology and how invasive species are introduced. Students learned about their community’s invasive garlic mustard, and helped remove 90 bags from public areas.

Neither school was identified in the study to maintain privacy for the teachers and students.

Despite the success of some teachers, Hamilton’s study proved that place-based education isn’t always easy.

“Was the study successful?” Hamilton asked. “Yes and no.”

Five teachers were first involved with the study, but only two provided complete data sets and were able to participate.

The salmon project was hampered by unusually cold temperatures in the spring of 2019. The classroom had to delay the release of the salmon into the water until it was warm enough for the fish to survive.

A local homeowner’s association was an obstacle to the neighbors project. The association was initially willing to let the classroom test the water quality of their lake, but later rescinded permission over liability concerns. “They weren’t excited to work with them,” Hamilton said.

The two classrooms continued, but they finished with a smaller scope than when they started. While the neighbors project’s students experienced a small increase in Great Lakes literacy, there was no meaningful increase for students who were a part of the salmon project.

Increasing demands from school district curriculum make it difficult for classrooms to incorporate place-based education, said Gail Richmond, a professor of education at Michigan State University and a former place-based education teacher.

“There are many schools, not just urban, where a focus on test scores leads to less time outdoors,” Richmond said.

Richmond is the principal investigator for Teaching Science Outdoors, which teaches place-based education.

Some teachers lack opportunities to learn this kind of teaching, Richmond said. “When districts make cuts…science is the first thing removed from the curriculum.”

Only time will tell the long-term impact of place-based education on students and communities, Hamilton said. School administration continues to be a barrier, but more tools and resources are becoming available to teachers wanting to pursue it.

“The more people that understand what they’re doing, the more [students] are onboard,” Hamilton said.

Small-Grimes wants to continue teaching her students using place, regardless of its future.

“I’m frustrated we don’t have the resources to do more, but what’s kept me going 33 years is loving what I do,” she said.

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