Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
A couple weeks ago I took my two young children to the zoo. On our way home my four-year-old said "did you know that jellyfish can grow their bodies back when they get chopped up?" In other words, they can regenerate when, say, they have a close call with a sea turtle. My son learned this from chattin' it up with a zoo volunteer. He practiced communication skills, asked questions, took a social risk, and gathered information from an expert on a topic of interest.
I often talk about project-based learning on this blog because it's what I know and use in teaching. An overarching theme of project-based learning is community, from generating projects ideas to the final assessment. Students use community experts to gather information on their project topics, create innovative final products that impact the community, and present their projects to an authentic audience, one that is relevant and often public. All of the PBL components just mentioned involve the community in some way or another.
Before I get into any details on specific ways to use the community as a resource in project-based learning, let's first talk about why you would do this in the first place? Sounds like a lot of work, an extra task or thing to organize, or time away from teaching content. It can be an extra task if you let it. But you could also put some of the responsibility on your students. They can certainly and should be tracking down their own community experts and authentic audience. Community experts also deliver much of the content you would have to otherwise. It also doesn't mean you have to leave the building. As an experiential learning educator I strongly advocate for doing so, but that is not an option for everyone. If it's not an option in your situation, then bring the community to you! And your students can do the same. I'll get to some options soon, but first, why bother to use the community as a resource?
Benefits of Utilizing the Community in Project-Based Learning:
1) Development of 21st-century Skills - students learn a variety of important life skills such as resourcefulness, communication, and collaboration.
2) Real-world application of content - students make meaningful connections when they can see and experience concepts first-hand. For example, shadowing a genetics counselor would allow students to experience genetics concepts in the context of real-life.
3) Building a professional and personal network - students develop a hefty network that could lead to future references, job offers, lifelong mentorships and even friendships.
4) Strengthening the community - community collaboration puts students in a position to actively work at breaking down walls between students and community members that may have developed due to misunderstandings or stereotypes. There is so much to be learned from others, and not just from their expertise, but from their stories.
5) Access to resources you may not be able to offer - I took a graduate class with the biotechnology department at the University of Minnesota several years ago. They offer up their equipment to educators and their students, which I have taken advantage of many times. There have been a variety of scenarios where my students have needed a resource that our school couldn't provide, from actual materials to expertise or skill.
How to Use the Community as a Resource in Project-Based Learning:
The following are ideas or ways that I have personally used or have seen coworkers use the community as an element of learning experiences. You do not have to be doing project-based learning to include community resources in your curriculum. Use some of the suggestions below and adapt them in a way that works for you and your learners.
These are only a few options of many. When planning community involvement in your curriculum, consider the topic of study. Take constraints such as time, your own skills, equipment and space into account. Think about your needs and how a community member might be able to fill that role or provide that resource. It may seem like an additional task to an already demanding load. But if you plan well and put some of the responsibility on your students, it may actually feel like you're saving time, and the end result is worth it. The benefits are worth it.
What are some ways you currently use the community your curriculum? I would love to hear more examples. If you don't currently, what is keeping you? What obstacles do you face and how could you work around them or work through them?
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.