Friday, July 24, 2009

Learning through Place

Adopt-A-Watershed (AAW) is a non-profit organization that promotes educational enhancement, environmental stewardship, and community development through Place-Based Learning. AAW works with schools, youth education programs, community groups, and environmental organizations, guiding them through
The 5-Steps to Leadership in Place-Based Learning (The 5-Step).

The 5-Step develops leadership skills and strengthens organizational capacity to envision, create and successfully implement high quality Place-Based Learning. The 5-Step is a proven model for educational, environmental and community transformation.

OUR VISION is for education to serve as the cornerstone of a sustainable community, in which all citizens live their lives consciously choosing actions that ensure a healthy quality of life for current and future generations.

Adopt-A-Watershed's place-based learning programs promote this vision by engaging students in meaningful activities that lead to an understanding of sustainability and how their choices and actions impact the community and the overall environment.

OUR MISSION is to empower communities to care for their watersheds and enhance student learning by providing leadership development, educational tools, and access to a national network of resources.


Place-Based Learning is simply using our place, where we live, as the context for learning. Participants learn through a process of exploration, action, and reflection. Place-Based Learning engages students and other participants in critical thinking and meaningful projects that deepens the understanding of the place they live. It provides a framework that integrates the exploration of the socio-cultural aspects and the environmental qualities of the watershed and encourages action that benefits both people and the environment. Place-Based Learning programs provide opportunities for participants to engage in:

  • Integrated learning in the context and direct experience of place.
  • Community investigations and service learning projects.
  • Community education.
  • Reflection and assessment.

Why Watersheds? Watersheds are containers for place. We all live in a watershed, from the urban inner-city to the most remote mountain town. The watershed is simply a way to geographically define one’s place. Through exploration in our watershed we learn about the natural processes, such as fire, weather, or erosion, as well as human systems, such as urban development, agriculture, or recreation, within our place.


Many who get involved in Place-Based Learning have common goals, including: Enhancing education; Encouraging environmental stewardship; Building community vitality; and Inspiring hope.

For schools and youth education programs, Place-Based Learning provides meaningful learning through a standards-aligned program in which students learn through investigating, exploring and taking action in their local watershed and community. Place-Based Learning is an interdisciplinary, integrated approach that encourages cooperative learning and incorporates literacy, research, technology, character development, and service-learning. Research has found that students benefit from Place-Based Learning in the following ways:

  • Better performance on standardized measures of academic achievement in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies.
  • Reduced discipline and classroom management problems.
  • Increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning.
  • Greater pride and ownership in accomplishments.
  • In addition to traditional subject-matter knowledge and basic life skills, Place-Based Learning students gain a wealth of added educational benefits, including a comprehensive understanding of the world; advanced thinking skills leading to discovery and real-world problem-solving; and, awareness and appreciation of the diversity of viewpoints within a democratic society.

For communities, Place-Based Learning provides an organized program in which young people can work on solving real-life issues, in the process revitalizing their community, developing a sense of hope, and helping youth be recognized as valued citizens that can make a significant contribution to the community. This practice contributes to reducing such issues as gang violence, teen pregnancy, and school drop-out rates. It also increases career awareness and improves school to work transitions.

For organizations with an environmental focus, Place-Based Learning provides an opportunity for youth to learn about natural resource/environmental issues through exploration and taking action in their local watershed. A Place-Based Learning program can provide a sustainable pool of active volunteers and greater levels of engagement by the community in vital issues and projects.

The Five Steps to Leadership in Place-Based Learning (The 5 Step)

We understand that the individuals and organizations involved in Place-Based Learning vary immensely, from public schools and after school programs to environmental and community groups and beyond. The 5-Step is designed to draw from and support the needs, priorities, and characteristics of the individuals and organizations with which we work. We believe that high quality, sustainable Place-Based Learning programs are designed for and by the participating communities and educational systems.

Step 1: Initial Planning and Organization

Through a series of short meetings, AAW staff will work with you to develop a conceptual vision and determine the scope of your program, identify and bring together the key players that will make up the Leadership Team, and present you with a timeline and plan for developing your program. Leadership Teams are made up of educators, administrators, community and environmental partners, parents, youth and often higher education and business partners that are interested in implementation of Place-Based Learning in their community.

Step 2: Inventory Current Resources and Priorities

Utilizing a series of exercises and one or two short meetings, AAW staff will guide the Leadership Team through a process to identify and gather information on existing available resources, successful local programs, opportunities, challenges, and community and educational priorities. This stage provides an opportunity to begin to form relationships, while listening carefully to people’s needs and priorities. AAW will organize this information into an existing conditions report that will be used during the strategic planning process.

Step 3: Visioning and Strategic Planning

With AAW providing facilitation, the Leadership Team coordinates a community Vision-to-Action Forum, at which the community has an opportunity to delineate a shared vision, create action plans, and develop working groups. This process informs the Leadership Team and allows the team to develop a comprehensive strategic plan that will guide the development and implementation of their program. AAW staff will guide the Leadership Team and key stakeholders through an intensive two-day process designed to gather information for the strategic plan. AAW will take that information to develop a strategic plan that will include your program’s vision and mission, long-term goals and objectives, short-term action plan, and the implementation benchmarks required to successfully launch and sustain your program.

Step 4: Implementation

AAW staff will work closely with the Leadership Team to put the strategic plan into motion and guide the development of the newly emerging program. AAW will draw from its menu of services, including the Leadership Institute, a variety of workshops, and one-on-one consulting days, to custom tailor a combination of services designed to fit your specific needs. The services are designed to:

  • Develop the leadership skills and professional capacity of your staff and partners;
  • Create organizational and communication structures to support your program;
  • Nurture educators and others through on-going professional development and opportunities for facilitated curriculum planning, project planning, and facets such as literacy program development;
  • Provide time for collaboration between educators and their community partners;
  • Create essential networks; and
  • Secure sustainable funding sources for your program.

Step 5: Evaluation and Improvement

AAW will work with the Leadership Team to create a program self-evaluation process that effectively assesses your program against defined indicators of success and benchmarks outlined in the strategic plan. The evaluation will provide important information to feed into annual planning efforts, and will help you document your accomplishments and successes to share with others.

Listening to Place

By Kim Stokely appeared in the Spring/Summer 2004 issue of Clearing Magazine.

Click here to download!

Learning through Place

By Kim Stokely appeared in the Fall/Winter 2004 issue of Clearing Magazine.

Click here to download!