Connecting Learners to Place: The Teton Science Schools Approach

Voices from the Field   28 January 2016
By Nate McClennen

 

…an educated student who understands how communities function will be better equipped to address future challenges and opportunities faced by the world.

Nate McClennen
Vice President of Education and Innovation

Almost fifty years ago, a Wyoming science teacher decided that students would learn more if they experienced science rather than be told about science. From humble beginnings, Teton Science Schools (TSS) emerged as a set of diverse programs connecting people, place, and nature through education, science, and stewardship. TSS has a core belief that students of all ages need to reconnect to the places within which they live. Whether the cultural, economic, political, or ecological components of place, an educated student who understands how communities function will be better equipped to address future challenges and opportunities faced by the world.

This encompasses the broad definition of place-based education: interdisciplinary learning through inquiry and design to connect people and communities. Inquiry is understanding local economic, social, and ecological communities through the scientific method, while design learning helps guide students to find creative solutions to steward and positively impact communities.

Since 1967, TSS has educated, trained, and inspired thousands of children, youth, and adults from across Wyoming, the Intermountain West, the nation, and around the world. By providing a scientific inquiry lens through which to understand the world and a design learning approach with which to create innovative solutions, graduates have the potential to deeply impact the communities within which they live. While the approach focused solely on science content and skills at first, the mission has broadened over the last fifteen years to include all aspects of community —ecological, social, political, economic, etc.

 

TSS believes deeply in training teachers through our Teacher Learning Center and Graduate Program, as we recognize the need for more teachers to be trained in these approaches if they are going to impact more students.

Nate McClennen
Vice President of Education and Innovation

The programs are diverse and range from one day to thirteen years. TSS runs two independent schools (Teton Valley Community School (PK-6) and Journeys School (PK-12)), which both integrate the community into learning when and where relevant. Field Education programs bring students from around the country to northwest Wyoming for multi-day science education programs.

In addition, Field Education programs support an eco-tourism group (Wildlife Expeditions), a short-duration teacher-training program (Americorps), and a center for dialogue and discussion on conservation (The Murie Center). TSS believes deeply in training teachers through our Teacher Learning Center and Graduate Program, as we recognize the need for more teachers to be trained in these approaches if they are going to impact more students.

Personalized, relevant, and contextualized learning is a hallmark of TSS programs. Deeply rooted in the local and regional community which serves as a relevant classroom, TSS students complete programs with a strong understanding of how communities function.

Our graduate program has a focus on Place-based Education to gain an understanding of how communities can serve as classrooms. The two schools participate in experiences out of the classroom throughout the year to investigate topics such as local sustainability, the wilderness, culture, and scientific research. The Americorps programs design capacity-building projects in conjunction with local non-profits—implementing solutions to help support the mission of other organizations.

While the two independent schools still implement traditional grading schemes (albeit with authentic assessment and detailed rubrics), Teton Science Schools is now piloting a competency-based online academy for students in grades 3-8, which delivers a competency-based and integrated curriculum that connects virtual learning and actual communities through inquiry and design.

Journeys School students complete self-designed projects in 2nd, 5th, 8th, 10th, and 12th grade, which provide an avenue through which they develop their agency. These projects are part of a capstone program, which guides students through a year-long process to develop a rigorous exploration of a specific topic.

In addition to research topics of interest, older learners design “grassroots projects” through the International Baccalaureate program to positively impact their community. Graduate students support research on our educational practices through thesis work.

The TSS Framework for Education guides the curriculum and, at the core, teaches students to understand place through inquiry and design. Essential to this philosophy are three socially embedded competencies: instructional excellence, community leadership, and intentional culture.

Each of these three competencies is deeply rooted in program areas through curriculum that focuses on communication, leadership, reflection, understanding of self, collaboration, and design learning. Parents, staff, participants, and students all interact in authentic ways to provide a rich learning experience for all constituents.

Experts are invited into classrooms to critique student work, such as when middle school students presented innovative solutions to the challenge of accessibility for physically disabled individuals. A flagship example are our Reggio-Emilia Nature Based Early Childhood Programs, which combine experience in the outdoors with the student-centered approach for students ages three to five.

By nature, place-based education is open-walled and brings learning out of the narrowly defined constraints of the classroom. All of our participants and students gain a deeper understanding of the community as classroom, the scientific process of inquiry in all disciplines, and the design-learning methodology to make impact in a place.

The organizational evolution has been fast over the last twenty years. The next challenge is how to scale mission impact. Early initiatives involve increasing the amount of work we do to train teachers in other schools (large initiatives already exist in Wyoming, Missouri, and the country of Bhutan) and how to create online delivery systems to connect virtual learners with local and relevant learning.

As the world becomes increasingly connected with technology but increasingly disconnected to actual communities, TSS is excited to explore and lead in the interface, providing learning experiences that not only create relevancy but also prepare students to understand and tackle some of the great challenges (and opportunities) that we as a species will face into the future.

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