Producing Bioregional Knowledge and Understanding: Student Projects Based on Field Learning

Susan Digby, Olympic College.
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In this activity each student creates a project that reflects their own observations of the bioregion rather than a synthesis of existing knowledge accessed through library research.

Student projects consist of a set of eight personal 'insights' based around a theme that they have selected from field trip experiences within their bioregion. Themes that students have selected in the past include: people who make a difference, colors, geological features, birds, place-specific fairies, special places, picnics, architecture, 'off the beaten track' places.

Resources that lay the foundation for the student projects are the field trips themselves and journals that students are required to keep to record their field trip experiences. The journals are a stand-alone assignment but they also function as an intermediary between their field experiences and the project.

The directed field trips can include urban and rural sites, museums or relative wilderness. In our case, at Olympic College, the field trips are integral to a learning community involving three courses related to the bioregion. Each week there is a daylong field trip that involves the students and all three faculty members. The field trip is in addition to classroom instruction in which involves discussion of readings (see 'References and Resources' section).

Each student selects a theme for their project based on field trip experiences and their own interests. Each of the eight insights that form the project consists of some type of image produced by the student (e.g. photograph, drawing, collage, letter, postcard, three-dimensional work, video, quilting, diagram, graph) and some type of written text that relates to the image. In this work students are producers of meaning rather than consumers of existing knowledge. Insights come primarily from their own observations. This is not a library research project; rather students are required to document their own thoughts, findings and experiences. For instance a project with the theme of flowering plants might contain an insight about skunk cabbages. Information about this plant (one of the eight that make up the project) might involve where the student found it, what drew the student to select it, what was growing near it, how it smelled, insects on it, the associations it has for the student and what physical characteristics they have observed.Student Handout for Bioregional project (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Jul20 11)

Input to this project has been provided by Donald Seavy and Cameon Geyer, Olympic College.

Learning Goals

Students become producers of some aspect, however small, of bioregional knowledge. Creating knowledge about a region is part of a process of bonding to a region, of becoming aware of a bioregion and becoming an integral part of the bioregion. This awareness leads to engagement with a number of 'big ideas' including environmental stewardship, biogeochemical cycles, recognition of interconnectedness and interdependence, and bioregional thought and practice.

Context for Use

This is a project that students work on outside of class time, although discussion of ideas and drafts are discussed in groups during class time. The project involves reflection and synthesis of field experience(s). Although I have no proof, I think this concept can be modified for a variety of grade levels. It can be expanded or shrunk in extent; for instance the number of required insights can be changed as can the length of text. At Olympic College, this project is a capstone project for a one quarter learning community course (15 credits) and it is worth 25% of the student's grade. We have used this project with a range of students from those high school students who are taking college courses (Running Start Program) to those who are back in school later in life. The most successful results are with mature students who usually have more life experiences to draw on and better language skills. The time involved in this project is varies widely but generally it represents a significant effort; the development of ideas into a theme can be time consuming and challenging. The final product is their 8 insights and a presentation to the class, often with other faculty and administrators invited.

Description and Teaching Materials

Field trips on which students keep journals are needed to provide the foundation for this project. Students use journals to record observations and answers to any course specific questions. We specify that field journals contain images, some of which are drawings, text, and measurements; Students are also required to reflect on their experiences. Observations, reflections and communicating the outcome of these activities create knowledge; within literature it is recognized that narrative is both a mode of reasoning and a mode of representation (Richardson, 1990). As such the journals result in a deeper level of student bioregional understanding. Additionally the field journals are travel literature; as such they are as much about the author's internal travels as they are about the physically traveled world.Travel literature (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Jul20 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

For students, the most difficult parts of this project are corraling their ideas into a theme, and time management.

With regards to ideas concerning themes and presentation approaches I bring in source books (books that I consider have elements that relate to their projects, such as interesting maps, poems, images, sketches, and particularly small segments that resemble possible student insights). An example of such a book is River of Memory (Layman, 2006).

I find it important to find time to check in with each student on the development of ideas and their progress; we have had one long bus trip that I have used for this purpose. It generally takes 2 - 4 hours to talk to all 24 students. If we have a second long trip another faculty member will check in with students for status and possible issues.

To help with time management I make a planner/calendar using a template that I get from the web so that students can schedule the 'build' of their project to avoid situations where they run out of time. We discuss project planning with this milestone chart. Filling in the calendar with symbols that show their timeline for work on each insight within their project is a 'hand-in' assignment.

Quite often students change their theme or approach to their insights part way through; it is part of the process. Because students are asked to define their theme and hand in a draft insight in week 4, their projects evolve with their expereinces in later field trips.

On two occasions during the quarter students have an in-class workshop centered around their projects. In the first, each student within the class of 24 presents their idea to the class and the class and faculty are free to comment. In the second during which students are presenting one final draft of an insight, students work in groups of 3 or 4. In these groups, students present their work and discuss any problems.

Projects are most successful when they build on a student's existing skills and interests. Sometimes when a student is having trouble with the project it's because the theme does not really 'speak to them' and it's useful to have them identify their passion and to build on that. For instance I had a student who was not making much progress. He was obviously interested in food; he came to class with snacks every day and talked about food. After some discussion he switched to a food-related theme and was able to do quite a good project.


Three faculty members each use the following rubric for evaluation. Following separate evaluations, we meet to view each project and discuss differences in grades such that we come to an agreement on one grade per student. This process has, to date, worked well.

10: Strong/exceeds requirements: Theme is unique and well-defined. Project is well-developed to reflect the natural history and/or chemistry and/or geography of places. Project involves critical thinking and creativity. Images are exceptional and/or thoughts are well-developed and reflect personal knowledge obtained through the Life on the Edge classes and convey a sense of place. Material is professionally presented. Grammar and spelling are correct. Contains the equivalent to 8 images and text is equivalent to 400 words/image

8-9 Better than average work: Theme is well defined and involves some critical thinking and/or creativity. Project is complete and reflects an engagement with the chemistry, natural history or geography of places as experienced in the Life on the Edge classes. More personal engagement with the site may be needed. Images are well presented. Work is professionally presented. The text exceeds the minimum 400 words (this page is 275 words).

7.5 Average: meets and exceeds minimum expectations. Images are thoughtfully selected and text is well-written, reflecting an engagement with the chemistry, natural history or geography of places. Critical thinking or creativity may need further development, Grammar and spelling may need work. Material is equivalent to 8 images with related text. Some material is derived from published sources.

6.5 Meets minimum expectations of 8 insights each consisting of an image and a minimum of 400 words that reflect engagement with the sites. Some material may be missing. Some material is derived from published sources.

5 Attempted but inadequate, insights may be missing, work does not reflect personal interaction with places. Material is derived from published sources and does not reflect learning form the course.

2-3 inadequate

0 Missing

References and Resources

A Foundation of Sustainability

Sustainability is infused into the course through a series of readings that include the following:

Thayer, Robert, 2003, Bioregional thought and Practice, Introduction (We discuss this early in the class)

Durning, Alan Thein, 1996, This Place on Earth, Pg 1 – 66. On the web through Sightline (PNW history as one of resource extraction)

Solnit, Rebecca, 2000 Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Chapter 1 (The concept of understanding place and self through walking)

Dickens, Charles, 1860, Great Expectations, Chapter 1. See The Literature Network: (Conveys a perception of marshes as ugly places that are to be avoided; a view that has existed until recently hence our use/abuse of marshlands)

Thrush, Coll-Peter 2007 The Lushootseed Peoples of Puget Sound Country.University of Washington Digital Collections, (First Nations Peoples perceptions of themselves and the bioregion)

MacDonald, Betty, 1945 The Egg and I, Chapter 16 (Perception of First Nations peoples and their relationship to the land in the not-so-distant past; conveys the importance of the continuing fight against discrimination towards minorities)

Edwards, Andres R., 2005 The Sustainability Revolution, Forward and Introduction (Introduces sustainability and conveys that the concept is varied and has buy-in from many different groups)

Parson, Edward et al., 2002 Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential consequences of climate variability and change. US Global Change Research Program publication Chapter 9: Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and change for the Pacific Northwest, (Concept of a region in change)

Additionally before each field trip one to three quotes are selected by Dr Seavy (natural history professor) such that students reflect on a variety of environmental and personal issues.

Within the geography portion of the class we look at books that include:

Baedecker, Karl, 1937, Guide to Great Britain. I mention the Baedecker raids in Britain which were so very successful because the Germans used the maps in these books as guides.

Harmon, Katherine, 2003, You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination. (We discuss mental maps and the fact that they convey information other than what is conveyed by maps that we judge to be highly accurate like the Baedecker maps.)

Harmon, Katherine, 2009, The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography

Layman, William D. 2006. River of Memory: The Everlasting Columbia.