Place-Based Education: Field Trips with a Community-Building Focus

by Thom Smith

As the school year begins its final chapter, a teacher’s calendar is often bursting at the seams!  End-of-year testing, school plays, spring concerts, and fundraisers galore jostle for valuable time slots.  And not to diminish the importance of any of these events, but the most highly anticipated experience of the last days of school is often the coveted field trip.

Field trips are almost always anticipated and enjoyed by both students and teachers alike!  Veteran teachers often have their favorite trips they’ve planned for, prepped for, and experienced several times over – and they somehow never seem to lose their novelty or value.  Novice educators can have fresh eyes for new opportunities that correlate with their curriculum and excite the masses.  Whatever the case may be, most administrators, educators, and students can agree that field trips are indeed worthwhile activities!

Now, it may be too late for you to plan new field trips this late in the school year, but it is never too late to consider looking at field trips from a particular perspective: take into consideration whether or not your field trips are place-based educational opportunities.  

Place-based education is a lot more than just a field trip experience, and a lot more than just finding a great spot to learn about scientific specimens or historical figures.  While there are a lot of definitions floating around out there, a concise description would be: place-based education is an educational field trip with a community-building focus

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.

Field trips that do not include all of these objectives can still be fruitful, for sure.  Especially if a field trip is an experience that represents the culmination of an educational unit, enhances student knowledge, and provides students with the opportunity to show off what they have learned.  

However, if you would like your students to experience a field trip that is not only a one-day event, but also an experience with a long-lasting focus and community-building focus, then consider what place-based educational opportunities you might have in your school’s area.

To give you insight into what place-based education looks like, I’m going to go back in time to share an experience I had several years ago along the coast of Brunswick, Maine.  Several instructors, including myself, had the opportunity to facilitate workshops in collaboration with the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership (CBEP). 

This is how the three objectives of place-based education were met:

  • Engaging students with relevant learning objectives: The learning objectives of our workshops 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 mudflat ecosystem.
  • Creating a deeper understanding of academic concepts with hands-on learning experiences: Students developed a deeper understanding of concepts when they were learning about them firsthand, onsite, rather than just being told about them.  They were able to observe, draw, count, write notes about, and sometimes handle specimens in the mudflat.  This experience was far more impactful than reading about organisms in a classroom setting or learning about them in a museum.  Being shown photos and videos of specimens, locations, or events doesn’t have as strong of an impact on someone’s long-lasting learning and memory than the ability to physically hold an organism in one’s hand, or to see and hear and smell and touch the actual location of the educational topic being taught.   
  • Building a greater knowledge and appreciation of the local community:  Dan Devereaux, the former Marine Warden of Brunswick, Maine, pointed out to our group of educators that he has invited high school students to the mudflats of their own town, and they weren’t even aware of the mudflats’ 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 understand more fully, and appreciate more deeply, the importance of the education they are currently receiving in their hometown – thanks to their motivated educators providing them with place-based educational opportunities.

Teachers 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.  Whether you are still planning field trips for this school year, or looking forward to the next, consider ensuring that at least one of your field trips meets the criteria of place-based learning…you and your students will greatly benefit!

Before you go!  Here are some place-based education ideas to search for in your community:

  • Local nature programs that encourage students to document scientific observations either from school grounds or during nearby excursions
  • Local farms that provide students the opportunity to learn about regional agricultural practices
  • Local theaters that not only showcase plays and musicals but also provide students with the opportunity to be a part of their productions
  • Local art studios that not only showcase art, but also provide opportunities for students to work on and showcase their own artistic creations
  • Local historical venues that not only highlight the past of particular events and people, but also encourage students to investigate the past of their own neighborhoods and citizenry
  • Local businesses that not only educate students about commerce, but engage them in assisting with their specific objectives and/or encourage students in entrepreneurship
Thom Smith

Thom Smith Thom Smith is currently a fourth grade teacher in New London, New Hampshire. He has experience as an educator at the preschool, elementary, middle, and college levels. He has also been an administrator at the middle school level. He has an Early Childhood Education Degree, Elementary Education Certification, and a Masters in Educational Leadership. He is also a Christa McAuliffe Sabbatical recipient. He is a lucky and grateful husband, and a father to eight wonderful, rambunctious children. When he isn't spending time with his family or students, Thom loves to write poetry, hike, bike, and enjoy the vacation world that surrounds him in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire.