Place-based Learning in Environmental Studies

In summer and Fall of 2012, I was thrilled to be involved in the Situated Learning Award by the Engage program at UW–Madison. I got to assist three instructors in creating and implementing mobile-based Situated Learning activities for their courses.

This post examines a case in Environmental Studies, where the instructor and her two graduate students built an elaborate three-role collaborative interactive tour of six buildings on campus where six issues in sustainability that the course covered throughout the semester: electricity, carbon, LEED, waste, water, and health. The buildings represented a range of challenges for these, from age of building (oldest and newest on campus) to primary usage (from offices to science labs). Students self-grouped into threes, each taking on one of three roles that had an associated “superpower” — the Engineer could “see through” walls and floors to understand hidden infrastructure, the Naturalist had “Nature’s language” and could communicate and understand natural systems, and the Historian had “time travel” and could talk to the ghosts of characters that once inhabited the buildings and campus.

Each group was tasked with following a linear tour of buildings with game-like activities and individual and group challenges at each (e.g. “Use a utility meter and this Jan 1 reading to calculate the electricity used in this building since then”). They were given a short survey after each building, and a longer one at the end of the activity. The 2-3 hour activity was revisited in class discussion throughout the semester as course themes were covered (e.g. “Remember when you were in the mechanical room of [oldest campus building], and saw defunct wood fired boilers next to the current steam pipes…?”). As this paper is being written, the course is still underway, so only preliminary results from surveys are available for analysis. Initial evaluation is bolstered by author observations over six implementation sessions.

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