Eagle Rock’s Place in Place-based Education

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When “place-based education” was coined back in the early 1990s by Laurie Lane-Zucker of The Orion Society and Dr. John Elder of Middlebury College, ground had already been broken for our campus here in Estes Park, Colo.

And when author and American educator David Sobel — credited with developing the philosophy of place-based education — wrote Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities in 2004, we here at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center, were 10-plus years into our use of place-based education as a pedagogy used in the progressive effort to reengage youth in their own education.

It’s no wonder then that a number of recent publications have cited our unique school and professional development center with regard to the advancement of place-based education.

Understanding Place-based Education

In the simplest of terms, the idea of place-based education revolves around connecting learning to a student’s surroundings. In the case of our school, that notion encompasses our classrooms, meeting halls, living quarters, and thousands upon thousands of acres that surround our campus, snuggled up to the Rocky Mountain National Park.

The challenge for our instructional specialists is to turn the surrounding towns, parks, buildings and history into myriad lessons of learning, building and nourishing pride in the communities in which our students find themselves. It is a directive that asks our student body to focus on real issues within the places where they learn, travel through, and live.

At its core, place-based learning connects students to local history, landscape, geography, and people through the intense exploration of a specific area which, along the way, can serve to help solve the area’s inherent or most recent or chronic challenges.

And, as is usually the case, the way we accomplish such challenges at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center (PDC), is to surpass the norm, thus unintentionally becoming the subject of published articles about the things we take on to in the effort to reengage youth in their own education. Recently, our work involving place-based education was cited in two publications.

The Power of Place

The Power of Place: Authentic Learning Through Place-Based Education (by Tom Vander Ark, Emily Liebtag, and Nate McClennen) was published earlier this year by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). The book provides examples that illustrate the interdisciplinary principle that is being implemented through place-based experiences in schools across the nation.

Specifically, a section within the March 2020 book spotlights Jon Anderson, a former Eagle Rock School instructional specialist and educator with more than 20 years’ experience — 15 of which were spent here with us in Estes Park. Vander Ark and his co-authors highlight Anderson’s role in our place-based focused class called The Dragonfly Project, which Anderson himself wrote about in the fall of 2015 for post here on our blog titled “The Eagle Rock School Student as a Citizen Scientist.” The authors note that Anderson and his former Eagle Rock School students noticed our area’s dragonfly population was on the decline, and they wondered why that was occurring.

Students ultimately discovered that mercury — a heavy metal and a global pollutant that threatens both humans and animals worldwide — was present within our nearby national park and was a threat to the area’s dragonfly population. The National Park Service asked these “citizen scientists” to help the park develop solutions for sustaining the dragonflies in the park, and then pass on data to other parks about their project. Today, the project is in place at more than 60 parks nationwide and continues to leave a mark on the nation’s ecosystem.

Place-based Education at Eagle Rock

In addition to The Dragonfly Project, many Eagle Rock classes have place-based learning included within their very fabric. Here is a short list of classes we’ve offered with a place-based education component:

  • Deeper Learning & Equity: Based on the theory that our educational system is inequitable, students explore the numerous structures and tools that address that notion. Along the way, they learn about such structures as the “No Excuses” schools, which are exceptionally strict and teach a traditional curriculum, and “Deeper Learning” schools, where students study topics in depth and often do projects to make a positive change in their communities. And as part of one this class’ iterations, students helped produce and run our Summer 2016 Institute for educators seeking to improve equity at their schools. (Eagle Rock School graduate Courtney Coleman wrote about that experience in a post we published in August of 2016 titled Summer Institute Helps Educators and Students Grow Equity Together.)
  • Colorado Rocks: This class offers a combination of rock climbing and learning geology through field exploration, labs, and classroom study. Students use the combination of climbing and geology to examine change in both the natural world. One iteration of the class included a five-day climbing trip to the Vedauwoo climbing area in southeastern Wyoming, along with studies of geology here on campus and in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • Riverwatch Citizen Science: In this class, students explore the health of the Big Thompson River, while engaging in the sport of fly fishing. They collect both water samples and macroinvertebrates (bugs) from the river, then analyze the samples for use by the Colorado Watershed Assembly to develop and maintain water quality standards.
  • For the Birds: Students taking this introductory ornithology class identify and count birds in order to participate in an ongoing scientific research project called eBird. They visit popular birding sites in Estes Park and along Colorado’s Front Range in order to observe, identify, and count as many different bird species as possible. They also study bird families, bird behavior, and what the birds reveal about the health of the ecosystems in which they live.

In addition to place-based education on our own campus, our Professional Development Center staff consists of school-change consultants who work across the nation with public and private schools and school districts on place-based education initiatives that help to engage their students in an entirely new way.

For additional information on place-based education and its practical application for schools nationwide, read What Is Place-Based Education And Why Does It Matter? (available as a PDF file). And don’t be surprised if you see Eagle Rock referenced in the State & National Parks section (page 15 to be exact).

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