Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Place in the City: Place-Based Learning in a Large Urban Undergraduate Geoscience Program

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Place in the City: Place-Based Learning in a Large Urban Undergraduate Geoscience Program

Article excerpt


All too often, the term "introductory geoscience course" turns out to be a misnomer. Although such classes are+ typically taught as introductions to the geoscience field, students taking the classes seldom have any intention of continuing in geoscience and often do not even intend to take another science course. The majority of students enrolled in these classes would be better served if their course was specifically designed to be a "concluding geoscience course": a course that did not prepare them for a career in Earth Science but instead provided them with the skills, knowledge, and perspectives they need to become more informed citizens of a global community intimately intertwined with Earth processes. Although there are a variety of ways to create effective concluding geoscience courses, place-based learning is an excellent framework in which students can rediscover and redefine their relationship with the Earth. The experience at the University of Minnesota suggests that place-based learning can be a remarkably powerful pedagogical approach, even among urban students who are less innately connected to natural landscapes or Earth processes than students living in rural areas.


While the terminology of place-based education is relatively recent, the idea has a long history, with roots extending back past Leopold's Sand County Almanac (Knapp, 2005), through Dewey's The School and Society (Woodhouse and Knapp, 2000; Smith, 2002), to Thoreau's Walden; or Life in the Woods (Gruenewald, 2003b). Globally, place-based education is often associated with ecological sustainability efforts or the integration of indigenous knowledge (Glasson et al., 2010, 2006; Schroder, 2006). Nationally, K-12 place-based education is commonly associated with environmental studies or ecological sustainability (Gruenewald, 2003a; Loveland, 2003; DavidsonHunt and O'Flaherty, 2007; Wells and Zeece, 2007) but is also effective in art, literature, or other humanities (Bishop, 2004; Ball and Lai, 2006).

Within the realm of undergraduate geosciences programs, place-based learning is arguably best known among smaller colleges serving Native American populations in rural settings, where students' historically strong ties to the land make it particularly effective (Loveland, 2003; Semken, 2005). However, place-based learning can provide similar benefits to students in urban settings regardless of ethnicity (Davies, 2006) and helps build ties to places among populations that are less intrinsically tied to the land (Semken and Butler Freeman, 2008; Semken et al., 2009).

As with any relatively new pedagogical approach, there are different definitions of place-based learning. The university's place-based efforts combined Woodhouse and Knapp's (2000) recognition that place-based learning is inherently multidisciplinary and experiential, with the five characteristics of place-based geosciences teaching suggested by Semken (2005):

* Its content focuses explicitly on the geologic and other natural attributes of a place.

* It integrates, or at least acknowledges, the diverse meanings that place holds for the instructor, the students, and the community.

* It teaches by authentic experiences in that place or in an environment that strongly evokes that place.

* It promotes and supports ecologically and culturally sustainable living in that place.

* It enriches the sense of place for students and instructor.

This description and the university's program differ from other definitions of place-based learning that emphasize extensive outdoors experience or a commitment to community service or outreach (Smith, 2002; Sobel, 2004). The University of Minnesota lacks safe accessible local exposures for students to visit, and the program's large size precludes the possibility of long-distance field trips. Although the program recently added self-guided explorations of the campus area and Saint Anthony Falls, and intends to branch into biking or canoeing explorations of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and other regional parks, its place-based learning has to primarily occur within the classroom. …

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