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Ohio University faculty participate in a place-based pedagogy workshop held at The Ridges

Place-Based Pedagogy

The following story is the first in a three-part series about projects currently being supported by the 2017 cycle of the Academic Innovation Accelerator. These projects already have made significant strides at OHIO. Each project is unique and made possible by many different teams of University individuals working together.

by Emily Baxstrom
June 2018

Jerry Miller, professor and associate director of undergraduate studies in the School of Communication Studies, first came up with the idea to bring place-based education to Ohio University in May 2017. He traveled to the Teton Science Schools with the Ohio Fellows Program for a one-week communication and environmental leadership event in the Wyoming mountains.

“The trip reignited my interest in encouraging people to think how our community is a unique, intentional place,” said Miller. “Athens and its surrounding area have a strong history that is culturally, ecologically, and economically diverse, so it just makes sense for us to think about our classrooms not as being restricted to four walls, but to think about what we can do out in the Wayne National Forest, in our local communities, and so forth.”

Miller also had seen the positive effects of other OHIO faculty’s work with place-based pedagogy. He was particularly inspired by Dr. Aimee Edmondson’s civil rights tour, in which she takes her students on a bus throughout the southern United States to visit some of the major civil rights sites. “The experience is something the students will take with them for a long time,” said Edmondson, associate professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. “There would be no chance to replicate this in the classroom in Athens.”

After discussing his idea with multiple people throughout the University and garnering support from the Scripps College of Communication, he developed a formal proposal that was then submitted for additional support from the Academic Innovation Accelerator (AIA). Miller’s proposal sought funding to bring the Teton Science Schools to Ohio University to put on a faculty workshop and panel about place-based pedagogy.

Kevin Krasnow from the Teton Science Schools speaks to OHIO faculty during a place-based learning workshop.
Kevin Krasnow from the Teton Science Schools speaks to OHIO faculty during a place-based learning workshop held at The Ridges in spring 2018.

What is place-based pedagogy?

Placed-based pedagogy involves taking learning outside the traditional classroom setting and immersing students in the ideal location for the content they’re studying. Proponents of place-based pedagogy note it “involves direct experience that is more engaging; it promotes civil participation that contributes to democratic institutions; it promotes an ethic of environmental stewardship and sustainability; and it responds to local economic, social, and environmental pressures” (Smith & Sobel, 2010, p. 32).

Miller has taught courses both with and without place-based pedagogy. In his instruction, Miller considers basic concepts many do when creating and consuming information, like public deliberation, argumentation, use of evidence and logic, and more. However, when using place-based techniques focused on a particular location, “you recognize how the stories may be different than the larger narrative that’s placed on the students from a more universal perspective,” he said. “Place-based education really has a meaningful experience for both the students and the faculty.”

When his class discusses water conservation or access to clean water, the students have a very different perspective than the residents in Flint, Michigan, for example; evidence, perspectives, practices, and logic that are created from a particular place may or may not be relevant to another place. “It’s being aware of how place really influences what and how we talk about certain things,” said Miller. “The place may be culturally different, the ecology may be different, the economics may be different. And how those things interconnect may be different as well.”

Miller considers one of the biggest benefits of place-based pedagogy to be that students are able to recognize not just what they’re learning and discussing in class, but how the whole curriculum coalesces and makes sense around a particular place. “You can talk about the argument, but when you’re out in a particular place and you’re experiencing it with your full body senses, it’s a more complex experience,” said Miller.

One of Miller’s classes has been discussing aspects of environmental communication in the region surrounding Athens, Ohio. The class has travelled to the Wayne National Forest and nearby preserves to see controlled burning and talk to the foresters as to why, from their perspective, it’s important. These students also have been exposed to counter-perspectives and counterarguments. “Experiencing that is more meaningful than just talking about it,” he said.

Miller prefers to incorporate place-based pedagogy into his courses as a supplement, not necessarily throughout an entire course. “I encourage my students to get outside their comfort zones, to question what is around them, what’s above their heads, what they’re breathing, what they’re drinking,” he said. “Then they start to recognize the ecological, economic, and cultural significance of this.”

Ohio University faculty participate in a place-based pedagogy workshop held at The Ridges in spring 2018.
Ohio University faculty participate in a place-based pedagogy workshop held at The Ridges in spring 2018. Participants learned about place-based fundmentals and how to incorporate techniques in their courses.

Finding support

One of the strategic pathways at Ohio University is to support outstanding faculty by investing in them. The Academic Innovation Accelerator is a project that does that; it empowers faculty to pursue appropriately designed and evaluated pilot projects that enhance both the quality and reach of an Ohio University education by providing resources, services, expert advice, and financial support to move these ideas forward.

Miller began his process by talking with colleagues involved with the Ohio Fellows Program to see if his idea was something tangible. This eventually led to him receiving significant support from the Scripps College of Communication. Then in October 2017, Miller attended the AIA Ideation Event, attracting even more interest in his idea. Here, he realized just how many faculty at OHIO were already doing place-based pedagogy and learning, and he could draw from that pool for involvement.

“Having an event like the AIA’s Ideation Event where you can brainstorm and look at other people and have a conversation with them eye-to-eye to see if there is something feasible in your idea can only make that idea stronger,” said Miller. “The Office of Instructional Innovation was crucial in allowing my conversation about place-based pedagogy to be as broad as it has been.” After receiving additional support from the AIA, he was able to include additional faculty across the University in the project, as well as bring in staff from the Teton Science Schools.

For other faculty interested in moving forward with their own ideas, Miller recommends bouncing the idea off colleagues and taking advantage of funding opportunities available throughout the University. “Do a lot of knocking on doors,” said Miller. He recalled a “snowball effect” that took place when he discussed his idea with colleagues; one person knew two other faculty in different programs that would be interested and good contacts, and they would know even more individuals that would be good additions to the idea.

To continue moving his project forward, Miller currently has organized a Faculty Learning Community focused on place-based pedagogy at Ohio University. The group is planning a short retreat in early fall 2018 to develop a plan to move various aspects forward, both independent of and likely in conjunction with other efforts on campus. If you would like to get involved, reach out to Miller.

The Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) serves as a catalyst to spark bold experimentation and sustainable discovery of innovative instructional models that fulfill the University’s promise of a transformative educational experience. OII provides a variety of services to faculty, staff, and students in support of academic units and online programs, as well as to advance initiatives to further the institution’s mission. Visit our home page for more information.