Community Engagement through Place-Based Learning

December is off to a busy start for the National Alliance for Engagement-Based Education. In one week, the #EngagingSchools tour stopped at six schools, across three states, along two coasts.  The Astra Center for Innovative Education, along with Inspired Teaching’s Interim Executive Director, Mary Kadera, visited one school near Providence and two schools outside of Boston. Read more about their Northeast trip here. At the same time, other representatives from Inspired Teaching ventured to Washington state to explore innovative education practices in Vancouver and Tacoma.

While some community engagement practices involve connecting with the school’s surroundings in smaller ways, like collecting food for a nearby soup kitchen, or taking an annual field trip to the local museum, other schools intentionally embed elements of learning into partnerships with community institutions. During our trip to Washington, we explored schools that truly embody the potential of place-based learning.

School Projects that Serve a Purpose

At Vancouver iTech, students’ work not only connects to relevant issues, but their projects also help to solve real-world problems. After learning that the Fort Vancouver Historic Site lacked the space needed to display all of its artifacts, the middle school students took action. They created a virtual museum to share the items that are typically kept in storage with the larger community. Meanwhile, at the high school, students are already hard at work designing creative solutions for a building that doesn’t even exist yet. Vancouver iTech is planning to relocate, and as the new facility is being built, students are planning various projects, including a composting system and a living plant wall, to ensure the building is environmentally friendly.

A Unique School Location, Rich with Learning Opportunities

On particularly stressful days, many high school teachers may feel like they work at a zoo – but for teachers at the Science and Math Institute (SaMI), it’s true! SaMI is a Tacoma Public School, situated in Point Defiance Park, the second largest city park in America, complete with a zoo and an aquarium.

At SaMI, teachers don’t have their own classrooms. Instead, they hold class wherever makes sense for that day’s lesson — in the aquarium, in a picnic area in the park, in a lab, etc. This model helps to keep students and teachers engaged, and teaches them to be adaptable. In every class, teachers find innovative ways to incorporate the environment into the lesson plan to enrich student learning. In Humanities, students write essays about animals they observed in the zoo, and make the case for animal attributes that humans should adopt. In Spanish, students work to help zoo interpreters/tour guides with words and phrases they can use when interacting with Spanish-speaking zoo visitors. In Art, students take pictures of plants outside in the park and create sketches based on the photographs.

Another unique learning opportunity at SaMI is the zoo’s early learning center, where students can take a class to learn about early childhood care and education. Different preschools in the area bring students to the early learning center for a few days each year to learn about the zoo animals and the plants and animals in the park. These days provide opportunities for SaMI students to get hands-on experience working with young children.

The early learning center isn’t the only place where students build career readiness skills, as every student must complete an internship before graduating. Students work to find internships that align with their post-high school plans. One student excitedly shared about her internship at the World Affairs Council of Tacoma, where she worked on their social media presence and helped the organization strengthen its connection to local Asian communities. She even met and talked with several ambassadors and other international affairs leaders. This type of meaningful work experience is not an anomaly, but the norm at SaMI, where students intern in a wide variety of settings including a biotech incubator, a staffing agency, and a retirement community.

A School with Business Partnerships Built In

When the Industrial Design Engineering & Art (IDEA) High School was founded, the team that foundedSaMI decided that instead of building another school in a community hub, this time, they would build a school and make it a community hub.

IDEA High School rents out offices to several different companies, but rather than charging them rent, the school provides the space free of charge, and instead requires the company’s employees to serve as adjunct teachers.

Students love IDEA because, as one student noted, “[I] build stuff that I can use.” In fact, when the school first opened, there was no furniture, so students built all the furniture for the school themselves. Another partnership the school has established is with 2nd Cycle, a local nonprofit, which opened a community bike shop at IDEA. Students have hands-on opportunities learn about fixing bicycles. One of the students in the class had bought his own bike frame, and was working to put the bike together himself. After putting all the parts together he took the bike for a test ride outside. He still hadn’t installed brakes yet, but assured us that was his next step!

Our trip to Washington demonstrated the power of connecting students to their communities and empowering them to use their knowledge and skills to work on projects they are passionate about. Whether students are creating community resources that will help to make museums and zoos more accessible to the public, or building a bike they can use to get around town, young people thrive when they are making meaningful contributions to their communities.

Follow us on Twitter at @InspireTeach and our partners at @AstraInnovate for the latest updates on the #EngagingSchools project.

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