A "Place" for Place-based Learning

students and teacher at the governor's academy conduct scientific research in nearby marsh
Erika Mitkus- Director of the Bass Institute & Science Faculty

Opening of the Alfond Center creates endless opportunities for students, teachers, and local partners

The first day of classes is always an exciting time for a school, but this year, opening days at The Governor’s Academy were even more significant. For the first time, our students arrived for classes at the Bill ’67 and Peter ’71 Alfond Coastal Research Center. As I greeted them in the lobby, I saw students nudge their friends and say with awe, “This is amazing!” and “Wow, look at all the tanks!” Even from their first moments in the building, it seemed that our students were being drawn outdoors—they explored the outdoor classroom space, paused by the floor-to-ceiling windows, or pointed out the direction of the tide in the Parker River. There was a similar effect on the faculty—in fact, I’m writing this blog post from one of the decks overlooking the Great Marsh, listening to the birds call.

The opening of the Alfond Center has also had an immediate impact on the academic program at Governor’s. Ninth-grade biology classes start the year with a place-based integrated unit that dives deeply into our local ecosystem, the Great Marsh. From the very first class this year, biology students were able to sit at their desks and directly observe the Marsh, sharing noticings and wonderings right from the comfort of the classroom. Even better, my biology class has been able to commit to weekly excursions in the Marsh. It’s music to my ears to hear ninth graders ask, “Are we having class outside?” as soon as they enter the building. Getting students directly into nature is key to my approach to place-based learning, and it’s also essential for the larger goals of the Bass Institute.

Some students at The Governor’s Academy have spent their entire lives in this part of the world, while some have never set foot here before moving into our dorms. Whatever their past experiences, we believe all our students have something more to learn about the Great Marsh and coastal New England.

Place-based learning is an approach to education that uses a particular location as an “anchor” to teach students about complex, meaningful ideas. Professor David Sobel defines it as, “a process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts….this approach to education increases academic achievement, helps students develop stronger ties to their community, enhances students' appreciation for the natural world, and creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens.” A commitment to place-based learning doesn’t mean that we lose focus on the rest of the global community, but it does allow us to sink deeply into topics that matter to our students, faculty, and region - and in doing so, open our students up to experiences that are unique to their education here.

What does a commitment to place-based learning mean at a college preparatory school like The Governor’s Academy?

  • Biology classes will work with Mass Audubon this fall to learn about the Great Marsh ecosystem from scientists who spend their days working it. They will collect real data from the Marsh on The Governor’s Academy’s campus, learn to interpret and explain it, and compare their data to the data collected by students at over a dozen local schools.
  • Students will learn about forces and engineering by building a historical wooden dory as part of a Visiting Professional Seminar Series with Lowell’s Boat Shop. This allows the oldest boarding school in New England to work with the oldest boat-building shop in America, further allowing our students to understand our community and local history.
  • Students in Marine and Environment Science classes will partner with local conservationists to help raise and study local endangered Blanding’s turtles nestlings, and will commit to their care for the entire academic year. Students will see how local conservation efforts affect their region and how these hyperlocal projects can turn the tide against species extinction.
  • Chemistry classes will participate in a new water column microplastics study designed by MassBays. The Parker River may not have been included in this sample without the commitment of our faculty and our new access to the river, and the data collected from this long-term study could impact policy and the local environment for years to come.

Across these examples, the key commonality is that students are learning important academic content through the lens of real-world experiences that help answer the age-old question, “Why are we learning this?” In place-based learning, students should see the immediate results of their learning, and, in the process, be more engaged in their local communities. With the opening of the Alfond Center and the creation of the Bass Institute, I’m confident that the list of examples above will continue to grow. I look forward to a future where every graduate of The Governor’s Academy has an appreciation for the unique place in the world we occupy, in all of its beautiful complexity.

science teacher at the governor's academy smiles near the parker river in byfield ma

Author: Director of the Bass Institute & Science Teacher Erika Mitkus

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