Place-Based Education: Field Trips with a Long-Lasting Focus

Did you know that Christa McAuliffe was also known as “the field trip teacher?”  This was because McAuliffe understood the value of place-based education.  But, what exactly is place-based education?


This past summer I was asked by the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership (CBEP) to conduct a workshop on place-based education for elementary teachers using my curriculum.  I immediately said “Yes!”

My next action, however, was to Google “place-based education.”  I’m glad I did, because my initial assumption was that I was going to be instructing educators on learning science by doing science.  We were going to the mud flats of Brunswick, ME, and I figured my main responsibility was to teach about the ecosystem and its organisms.

I was kind of right, but kind of wrong, too.

Place-based education is a lot more than just a field trip, and a lot more than just finding a great spot to study scientific specimens and learn about them (and from them).  While there are a lot of definitions floating around out there, I’ll do my best to be present you with a concise description:

Place-based education is an educational field trip with a community-building focus.


Now, for those of you looking for more meat, here is a less-than-concise definition:

Place-based education is the process of teaching academic concepts in the context of the local community with the three-pronged objective of 1) engaging students with relevant learning objectives, 2) creating a deeper understanding of academic concepts with hands-on learning experiences, and 3) building a greater knowledge and appreciation of the local community.

Let’s look at a trip to Brunswick’s shore as a prime example of place-based education:

  • Engaging students with relevant learning objectives: The learning objectives of my workshop (and others) included identifying organisms and their adaptations in a specific ecosystem, and determining the factors that influence the ecosystem in positive and negative ways.  The reason why this workshop was engaging and relevant to students was because they were learning specifically about organisms in their own “backyard” so-to-speak, and how they could personally identify the helpful and harmful factors impacting this mud flat ecosystem.

mudflat three.JPG

  • Creating a deeper understanding of academic concepts with hands-on learning experiences: Students develop a deeper understanding of concepts when they are learning about them firsthand, onsite, rather than just being told about them.  Even being shown photos and videos of locations or events doesn’t have as strong of an impact to someone’s long-lasting learning and memory than the ability to physically hold an organism in their hand, to see and hear and smell and touch the field of a long-ago battle, etc.


  • Building a greater knowledge and appreciation of the local community: Dan Devereaux, the Marine Warden of Brunswick, ME, pointed out to our group of educators that he has invited high school students to the mud flats of their own town, and they weren’t even aware of the mud flats’ existence.  And if they were aware, many of them had no idea of their importance.  Shellfish harvesting is, and has been, extremely important to their town for centuries.  The Brunswick Middle and High Schools now have an outdoor classroom for their students that helps them grow in their knowledge and appreciation of their coastal town, as well as the positives (aquaculture) and negatives (invasive species) their region is experiencing.

Christa McAuliffe understood the importance of place-based education, and the middle and high school students of Brunswick, ME understand and appreciate the importance of the education they are currently receiving in their hometown (thanks to their motivated educators, and assistance from the Maine Sea Grant and the CBEP).

Educators everywhere have the ability to utilize their local history and resources for the benefit of their students’ growth of knowledge – for every academic subject.  Place-based education is not just about learning content, but about learning how to make the world a better place to live, one hometown at a time.


photos courtesty of Victoria Boundy, Casco Bay Estuary Partnership


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