Parents worry about a lot of stuff. From the day-to-day—What’s for dinner? Did I put the wet laundry in the dryer?—to the heavier stuff that takes up a constant chunk of space at the periphery: How do I expand my kids’ horizons? Is there more I can be doing to help them succeed in school? Should they be taking musical lessons? Am I providing them what they need to achieve their potential?

There’s a lot of pressure on parents these days to provide their children with everything they could possibly need to succeed in life.

This is why it’s so exciting to hear about unique educational opportunities like those being offered at Teton Science Schools.


Place-Based Learning: Connecting Kids to Community

Based in the Greater Yellowstone area of Wyoming, Teton Science Schools is about 50 years old. For the first half of its tenure, it was really focused on bringing kids to the outdoors for environmental and science education. For the past couple of decades, they’ve expanded that focus to help kids holistically connect their learning to their community, with place-based education. This means going beyond learning about the ecology of the place and also helping kids understand the economic and social components of the place they live in.

The foundation of this program is based on inquiry and design:

  1. Students are taught to inquire into their communities through ecological, social, and economic lenses. Their approach uses the scientific method to observe, question, predict, collect, analyze, and discuss around an area of inquiry.
  2. Students are taught to design solutions around the challenges through the steps of define, plan, create, and evaluate.

Thanks to the partnership between Motivis and TSS, we spoke with Nate McClennen, Vice President of Education and Innovation. He explained why this place-based approach to education is so important:

“We believe our world is becoming increasingly more disconnected from the physical, geographic places people live. This is problematic because people no longer become active citizens, they no longer participate in those communities, they no longer can help solve challenges that exist in those communities….If you teach people how to understand communities and you teach them a very specific way to solve challenges that they find in those communities, then no matter where they go in the world, they’ll be able to make an impact on those communities–and thus, they will help the world become a better place.”

This sounds pretty appealing given how much we hear about modern schools teaching to the test. We need teach our kids to think critically to solve problems—and during this process, learn the core materials they need to achieve educational standards.


Expanding the Program to Students Nationally, Globally

Traditionally, TSS has taught students through this place-based approach by offering unique programs at their various Wyoming campuses, like 3- to 7-day outdoor adventure programs, summer camps, year-long field studies, K-12 year round schools, and more.

But they were eager to do more. Not everyone or every school has the ability to attend the amazing programs offered at their four regional campuses.

The good news for people far away from Wyoming is that TSS is now bringing their place-based education programs online, for students in grades three through eight that blends an online learning experience with a place-based approach.

What? Don’t you have to be at the PLACE for place-based education? It turns out that the answer is no. You can participate in place-based education in any community.

The way that Teton Science Schools is making this happen is by delivering core pieces of curriculum online to students in any location—they are aligned to all applicable educational standards. Once they have this core material under their belts, students go out into their communities to apply the material.

Real Student Projects

To give you an idea of how students might apply this type of learning in a real-world setting, students in a science class at TSS were working on understanding ecological concepts, so they partnered with a project called Yard Map out of Cornell University ( The project was all about mapping local flora and fauna. The students went out into their neighborhoods, examined their flora and fauna, catalogued what they found, all the while participating in a prestigious Cornell project. Their assignments were delivered back to the school through the online platform.

In another instance, students were doing a project that dealt with the sustainability of Austin, Texas (in their case). The assignment was to interview five people in the community, ask them about how sustainable they think the community is, draw conclusions from the interviews and present back on their conclusions. One student actually ended up interviewing someone in the mayor’s office. Not only were students learning about sustainability in this case, but they were also learning valuable lessons about interacting with adults in real workplaces.

Doesn’t this sound like a more relevant, engaging way to teach our kids than what they typically get? TSS thinks so, and they’ve identified three main benefits to the approach. They believe that:

  1. Student engagement increases due to increased interest in the curriculum.
  2. Student learning increases due to increased relevance of curriculum.
  3. Students and teachers understand self and community at a higher level thus positively impacting the community at all scales.


Who Might Be Interested in Teton Science Schools

While this place-based learning program is only for grades three to eight (for now), TSS hopes to expand to K-12 in the near future. A variety of students may be interested in taking advantage of the online program, including:

  1. Students that want to attend for a full semester or year. Each unit of study is linked to national standards and can be completed individually or chained together to complete a full semester or a full year to get the credit required at a particular school.
  2. Students that need to temporarily step out of their full-time school as their parents travel for work, family reasons, etc. Using a place-based approach can help acclimate these students to their new communities, and they can easily step back into their full-time program when physically possible.
  3. Home school students that are looking for an interactive, engaging program of study.

Additionally, they will be piloting online graduate level and professional training programs over the next year.


How Place-Based Education Takes the Weight Off Your Shoulders

America’s approach to education was designed to meet the needs of the industrial revolution and hasn’t changed much since it was introduced in the 19th century. It’s high time it does.

Teton Science Schools is ahead of the curve when it comes to innovating against the traditional models, but just knowing that this type of innovation exists takes a huge weight off parents. You can breathe a little easier knowing that there are other people out there concerned with disrupting the status quo to help your kids achieve their potential. Additionally, more and more of these innovative programs are being offered online, increasing the odds that our children will find a relevant, effective way to learn and to succeed.

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