Developing a Sense of Place with Pre-service Science Teachers

Andrew Gilbert, The Evergreen State College

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


The lesson content focuses on students' designing investigations concerning the notion of scale through a series of investigations on their campus. The overarching goal is to foster a connection to the earth through an investigation of the local environment.

Learning Goals

The immediate goal of the lesson is to facilitate student conception of scale. This includes setting up grid squares, drawing/sketching flora and fauna within their grids, designing scaled maps of each grid location and locating those on larger scale campus maps. The larger long-term goal (not immediately assessed by this lesson) is to connect students to their immediate environment in an effort to create a sense of placeas defined by Sobel (1998) which provides the foundation for people to make sense of larger issues related to environmental sustainability and inspire them to learn about the planet and their surroundings.

At the close of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Demonstrate accurate use of scale to produce scaled maps and sketches of observation sites;
  • Design and set up grid squares to provide measured areas to carry out observations;
  • Utilize observation skills and equipment to provide detailed and extensive descriptions of their field sites;
  • Connect their areas to larger ecological/scientific issues using the notion of systems.

Context for Use

The students involved in this project are going to be future elementary school teachers charged with the exceptionally important notion of not just teaching children, but inspiring children to see the beauty and power of scientific investigation. There may be no other group as important to the development of a future generation of scientists. This is of even greater importance considering the push of public schools to move away from investigative pedagogy toward lecture- and tests-driven approaches. We cannot possibly expect teachers to challenge approaches that blunt the creativity and inquisitiveness of children if they do not understand their own connections to both science and the environment. Many teachers of science at the community college level will also be working with many future teachers within their science sections and could alter these techniques with similar goals of developing a sense of place. The science content becomes a vehicle to facilitate understanding for the interconnectedness of large-scale science issues with the local environment. This should facilitate student understanding for the value of science and nature of scientific investigation.

Description and Teaching Materials

Please see attached Narrative Description for more detailed descriptions.

The lesson calls for 2.5 to 3 hour class session.

Phase one (0- 70 minutes): Walking the terrain

  • The class will convene outside for a walking tour to various parts of campus. They will take stock of the varying types of ecosystems and map specific areas on campus maps that will be provided.
  • Students will be placed into teams of 3-4.
  • During the walk, we will stop at two locations (at an opening in forest canopy, and at a stream location) and students will make sketches of any features they find interesting.
  • Students will need to mark the exact location of their field sketch sites on their campus trail map.
  • When we reach the sound, students will be asked to write a short reflection on their thoughts about their exploration from campus to Puget Sound.

Phase two (70 – 90 minutes): Mapping the beach

  • After a reflective writing...we will walk from the south trailhead (on the beach at Eld Inlet) to the northernmost trailhead on the attached map. This will cover approximately 500m of beach along the shore.
  • Student groups will construct plan-view maps of the area using estimates of distance between trailheads (500m) and each group will have 10m measuring tapes to assist in estimating the width of the beach. They must try to draw this to scale.

Phase three (90 – 120 minutes)...looking up-close

  • Find an area of the beach that interests your group. Locate and mark the area on the beach map that you just constructed.
  • The groups need to create a 1m square grid and mark corners with flags.
  • Groups must create detailed observations within the grid,
  • After about twenty minutes, I call the groups together to give them the next challenge.

Phase four (120 - 150 minutes)...stepping up the scale

  • This last challenge will be to find another area where we will observe an area of 10m x 10m (repeat the ideas from phase three). They will again be expected to make as many possible observations for 20 minutes. One essential stipulation is that their 10m square must include the shoreline (or mud line if we are walking at low tide).

Be sure to save enough time to return to the classroom by the end of the class period. The final thirty minutes are reserved for our walk back to the campus classroom.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Teaching notes and tips:

  • The narrative description provides a general guideline for carrying out this activity. The lesson calls for three consecutive hours as my methods class meets for three hours once a week. This time-frame and activities may be altered to fit the particular needs of differing contexts or class situations.
  • This activity was carried out at The Evergreen State College with nearly a 1,000 acre campus, much of it forest; this provides many opportunities to interest students in their surroundings. Many of our students have seen very little of our campus property. However, it is not essential for the assignment to have numerous wild spaces to investigate. This lesson could easily be done on nearly any campus urban or focusing on the scale activities of the activity description.

Description and Justification Description/Justification Sense of scale (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 152kB Jul30 11), campus map Evergreen Map (Acrobat (PDF) 2.4MB Jul30 11)


Campus maps, 10m tape measure (one for each group), graph paper (3 per student), small wire flags (four per group), clipboards for each student, hands lenses or magnifying lenses, binoculars, meter sticks


There will be several assessments associated with this activity. The sketches, maps and detailed observations will provide powerful insights into how the student is able to represent their surroundings.

Homework and questions to answer before returning to class for the next week:

If someone asked you...Tell me about your campus. How might you respond to them? What would you say? Did the exploration from today impact your thoughts of our campus?

What were some of the challenges of trying to sketch what you saw at the two locations we stopped along the trails? Was there any part of the trail that was particularly impactful (good or bad) for you?

What were some of the ways that your group devised to make your maps of Evergreen Beach?

Describe the differences between looking at your 1m square versus your 10 m square. Where you able to notice different types of things? If so, what do these differences tell you about scale? How does the scale of the observation area change the approach? How did it change the nature and intensity of your observations?

What were some of the relationships that you noticed either between organisms or between living and non-living?

The answers to the questions raised in the homework assignment will provide important insights into pre-service teachers developing notions of: sense of place, observation, creating representations to scale, and how the bounds of the observation area can profoundly impact what we are able to "see."

References and Resources

Sobel, D. (1998). Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Elementary Years. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.