Relevance is hugely important for students, not only to engage in learning but for them to care about the content. But why does it matter if they care?
Focusing on concepts that are part of the real-world, part of your students' worlds, helps them find purpose in the experience, which is an important piece of experiential learning.
How many times has a student asked you "Why are we doing this?" or "What is the point of this?" Your answer might be "because we have to", or "because it's on the test". Or maybe your answer is more along the lines of "because it's interesting." It might be interesting to you, but not to your students, possibly because they can't find a real-world connection. They don't see why it matters or how it is relevant to them, and if they can't see purpose, they're going to check out, or worse, feel that learning is a chore rather than joy.
So how do you make learning relevant, real-world, and purposeful (while focusing on specific content if need be)?
How to Make Learning Real-World and Relevant
1. Community Issues
Pay attention to what is going on in your school, neighborhood, city, national, and global communities. Students can connect with what they're experiencing in everyday life or issues that are impacting them directly. For example, if you're a science teacher that needs to teach about viruses, try using Covid-19 vaccines, an issue that literally impacts everyone, to drive the unit or inquiry experience.
One way to bring awareness to issues that are important to students is to have them study current events that interest them. You can even attach specific content or benchmarks to the experience, focusing on current events related to viruses or vaccines, for example. Check out my Current Events Project-Based Learning resource with all of the guiding materials needed to walk students through the experience from start to finish, .
2. Personalize Learning
It is hard to know what is relevant to students without learning about who they are, what matters to them, what they're experiencing at home, life challenges, interests, and more. I give my students personal learning plans on the first day of school. They fill in information about themselves, share their interests, write their goals, and more. I use that information throughout the year to drive learning experiences, focusing on concepts that are important to students. This grabs their attention, engages, and intrinsically motivates because students can directly apply the concepts to their lives.
This is my Personal Learning Plan, which students can print and add to a binder or fill in right on the Google Slides version of the resource.
3. Authentic Experiences
Students might not see right away how a concept impacts them or why specific content is relevant. If students, for example, are not paying attention to the news, they have stayed healthy, their parents or caretakers have managed to keep their jobs, etc., they may not see how Covid-19 vaccines impact them, and therefore, they simply don't think about it. They don't find it relevant.
One way around that is to organize authentic learning activities. Get them involved in and immersed in real experiences, such as speaking with a virologist and touring their lab (virtually, given the nature of the circumstances), restaurant owners that are struggling to stay afloat, medical workers, vaccine distribution employees, and more.
Student-led learning organically makes learning relevant to students. Students see purpose when they are calling the shots - when they are designing the experience, determining the direction, gathering information in ways that make sense to them, and organizing authentic learning activities that match their interests and life experiences. Students don't direct learning experiences for themselves that do not have a place or relevance in their lives.
To get students rolling on self-directed learning without spending a significant amount of energy or time yourself, use these self-directed tool kits created by Experiential Learning Depot.
If you're looking for precise methods of making learning relevant, here are a few ways, each of which encompass community, personalization, authenticity, and self-direction.
Teaching Methods that Make Learning Experiences Real-World and Relevant
1) Project-Based Learning:
Project-based learning is sustained-inquiry that is authentic in nature. Every step of PBL involves the real-world. Students gather information from community experts, they collaborate with community partners, they share their new knowledge with an authentic audience.
Grab my project-based learning tool kit and either have students design their own PBL experiences around a relevant topic, such as Covid-19 vaccines, or fill in the templates yourself to design the experience for them.
2) Problem-Based Learning:
Problem-based learning, also sustained-inquiry, focuses on real-world problems without necessarily having to fully immerse in the community.
For example, my parents live in Florida, where 65+ are now able to get the Covid-19 vaccine. Getting the vaccine right now, however, would require that my parents stand in a 1/2 mile long line. Speed of distribution is a real problem in their community, and indirectly effects everyone that lives there, 65+ or not. If I were a teacher in this community I might assign my students the task of designing a comprehensive plan to solve the problem. What is the source, and what can be done about it?
Problem-based learning is an easy go-to activity for any relevant real-world problem where students see purpose, make an impact, develop essential 21st-century skills and so much more. Grab my problem-based learning tool kit, templates for designing problem-based learning experiences easily and quickly.
Note: Spaces recently published a guest blog post that I wrote about the difference between Project-Based Learning and problem-based learning. Check that out here!
3) Community Action Projects:
This is my favorite way, and my students', to motivate and engage students through relevance and real-world connections. My students choose a community issue that is important to them. They then learn about that issue, explore solutions, plan a course of action, and take action. Community action projects blend project-based learning, service-learning, and problem-based learning. The experience is personalized, authentic, involves the community, and is self-directed.
Grab my community action projects tool kit, which includes templates that offer a seamless implementation process.
Making learning relevant and connecting concepts to the real-world isn't always easy, but try out some of these steps to simplify the process. Sell-directed learning experiences really take a lot of the pressure and work load off of you, while benefiting the students in enormous ways.
If you're interested in leading your team in implementing hands-on, self-directed, personalized, reflective learning experiences in your school, check out my experiential learning bundle. This bundle is your ultimate guide.
Thanks for reading! As always, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime with questions or comments about experiential learning, my blog posts, or any of my resources.
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There are some aspects of project-based learning that can be daunting or intimidating. Connecting and collaborating with community members was one of those things for me at the beginning of my PBL journey. But putting that fear aside is a must for several reasons:
Those of you that have dabbled in project-based learning know that bringing an expert to your students is common practice, as is bringing your students to the expert (Ex: A research lab). Community experts come into a place of learning for many reasions such as to speak, work with students directly on their projects, offer feedback and assistance, and occasionally play a role in final evaluations.
That has changed a bit with Covid. Distance learning presents an obvious challenge to connecting experts with students face-to-face, as does classroom learning. Even those students that will be back in a classroom will be experiencing a different learning environment than before, with understandable precautions put in place.
So how do you continue to incorporate community expertise into project-based learning mid-pandemic? Technology! Thankfully we are living in a digital era where communication is not a problem. My students engaged with community experts digitally even before Covid because there are so many cool ways to do that these days.
Before moving on, click "Get in Touch" right here on this website to sign up for my email list. You will receive my free project-based learning assessment e-portfolio where students can showcase their project outcomes, including community experts/collaborations. Grab my PBL Tool Kit to help with designing projects that include community experts.
Connecting with Community Experts Virtually for Project-Based Learning Experiences
How to Utilize Community Experts for PBL During Covid:
Students should use experts to gather information about their project topics. I am a biology teacher, but I am not an expert on colony collapse disorder, for example, a topic that came up during out pollinator study. The U of M had a CCD research program at the time. I was able to bring my students to their lab to discuss their research on disappearing bees. But how could students have gathered information from this expert team without being face-to-face?
I have been able to get my hands on so many unqiue resources by connecting with the right people. My favorite of all time was a human brain. A neurology student conducting research and writing her disseration on addiction came in to speak to my students and brought with her a real human brain. She then donated sheep brains for us to dissect. Connect with these community members however you see fit! She could have shown us the human brain on a video call and sent us the sheep brains to dissect together.
Collaborate with experts! Organize experiences that are mutually beneficial to your students and your community expert. There are so many amazing online programs that offer sharing and collaborating capabilities. For example, lets say students are coordinating a fundraiser. Students collaborate with local chefs to create a cookbook filled with recipes using only local ingredients. They then sell the cookbook.
FlipSnack is an online magazine/book creator that can be shared. Canva is another example, as are Google Apps. This entire cookbook could be created by a variety of collaborators without anyone ever seeing each other face-to-face. Of course that is not ideal, but that is the situation we're in, and it's a good option considering.
Start Building Your Network:
Keep an eye out for awesome community experts, especially if you will be the one coordinating these collaborations. My students self-direct their PBL experiences, so my students often find their own experts, but it's nice for you to have a log of potential connections to offer your students. Start with these steps:
1) Brain Dump: Grab a piece a paper, pull up a Google Doc or planning program, and dump all of your ideas for connections and collaborations into it.
2) Reach Out: Connect with a few people a day. Connect with someone of interest on LinkedIn, email a few people here and there, put a post on a Facebook group or Instastory.
3) Log Connections/Develop a Network: Jot down those that you make connections with or work with. Once you have worked with them, stay connected and keep them posted so that there is potential for future collaborations.
What are some of your favorite ways to bring community collaborators into your curriculum? How about digitally? I am gradually learning about amazing educational technologies, but have a lot more to learn. Fill me in!
For more details, tips, tricks, and resources on community experts, head back to to some earlier blog posts. Try this post on using the community as a resource and keep checking back for more posts in my PBL digital series.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
Again, I start a blog post with a reminder of how the world is changing. We are neck deep in a pandemic that doesn't seem to be getting better in any way; a very powerful racial justice movement is in place, and change feels hopeful and possible because of the tireless effort from the citizens - from the people.
I have been so impressed by the actions of not only the people, but of young people. Kids, from kindergarten age to high school graduation, have the capacity to do so much good in the communities that they are a part of, whether that be on a grand scale or simply advocating for a crosswalk to get put in near a local playground.
When I was teaching high schoolers, I included community action projects in every facet of my teaching. A community action project is a form of project-based learning where students identify issues in the community, research the issues, brainstorm solutions, develop an action plan, and take action. Community action projects deepen learning AND build essential 21st-century skills by engaging students in the community and investing their time and energy into relevant community issues.
My own children and I recently did a community action project together that involved a supplies drive for a local animal shelter during Covid shutdowns. This project was entirely based off of my children's interests, but I had a big hand in organizing and coordinating the experience because my children are 3 and 6 years old. A high schooler could do the same project, but they would lead the entire experience themselves; I facilitate.
I have specific community action projects in my TPT store that focus on specific themes, such as mental health. I also have a community action tool kit that offers an unlimited number of open-ended, self-directed community action projects for high school students.
I encourage you to grab my project assessment e-portfolio, free when you join my newsletter. Students add project outcomes such as photographic or video evidence of final products, community collaborations, rubrics, reflections, standards and goals met, and more. Have students add and manage their own community action project learning outcome into one beautiful and easy-to-navigate assessment portfolio.
Community Action Project Steps
1. Brainstorm/Identify Community Issues:
This is arguably the most important step of a community action project. This is where students find their interests, make observations about their communities, and decide on a general direction to take with their project. My tool kit includes a variety of brainstorming activities to guide students through this process.
My own children decided to focus their attention on Covid era animal shelters, which was inspired by a stray cat that had been frequenting our yard. My son wanted to keep it, my husband is allergic, and frankly, I don't want a cat. So we researched ways to make an outdoor cat house to protect it from storms and predators, and in doing so, came across a plea for supplies from our local animal shelter. This series of observations lead to our project focus.
2. Research the Issue:
Once students have settled on a community issue that they would like to tackle, they research the issue more thoroughly. The purpose of this step is so they can make informed action plans.
My children and I researched the details of the problem (lack of supplies for shelter animals during the Covid) and exactly which shelter supplies were needed. We discovered that many of the supplies could be hand-made, such as cat toys and blankets.
3. Explore Solutions and Write an Action Plan:
There are many ways that young people can take action. I have another blog post titled "Four Ways Students Can Take Action Today". Check that out for specifics. But this step basically includes brainstorming effective solutions that students can be a part of.
My children and I decided that the best way we could get involved would be to organize a supplies drive for the shelter, which included a neighborhood crafting project.
4. Take Action:
At this point students carry out their action plans. My children created their own fliers using Canva (with my assistance) and passed them around the neighborhood asking for shelter supply donations. We wrote a post on our block Facebook page asking for donations. We made a bin with a sign listing all of the supplies needed, and placed it on our stairs outside for people to make drop-offs. We also organized a cat toy making craft "party". By party, I mean supplying neighborhood kids with materials to make cat toys, having them make them at their own homes, and dropping them off in our donations bin.
We did all of this during the Covid stay-at-home order. This is an example of creative and authentic distance learning. My community action project tool kit includes a digital option to be used with Google Apps so that these projects can be done anywhere.
The year 2020 has been a doozy. In a matter of six months there has been a pandemic, school closures, economic collapse, "murder hornets", countless instances of racial injustice, and an uprising, one that has been a long time coming. I've been thinking about how these unprescedented events have impacted the lives of my students and what power they have to shape the uncertain future of this world.
I believe that the young people that I have worked with have more power than many their age because active and reponsible citizenship is strongly rooted in the school's philsophy, and therefore is center stage in all curriculum. It is never too early to teach young people how to be responsible, active citizens for the betterment of their lives and those that they share the world with.
Why does is matter if students understand and participate in the community? So that they can navigate challenges and uncertainties, identify injustices and know how to make them right, and to protect themsleves and their loved ones now and into adulthood. They can participate in shaping a world that they are proud of; a world that is healthy; a world that is fair and just; a world that positively impacts everyone.
How do you teach your high schoolers to be responsible citizens? Incorporate authentic learning experiences into the mix where students work directly in, with, and for their communities. Check out the following learning experiences that naturally include opportunities to become active, responsible citizens of the world.
Start by Adding Current Events to Your Curriculum:
I spend a lot of time on current events with my students. I include current events in advisory, my science classes, and even with my student book clubs. I do this for a lot of reasons, one of which is to give students topic ideas for their self-directed project-based learning experiences. I also include current events in my curriculum so that learners stay informed.
I infuse current events into my curriculum in a variety of ways.
Pedagogy that Promotes Active and Responsible Citizenship
1) Project-Based Learning:
Project-based learning is largely built around the idea of community. It is not simply a series of projects that students knock out in a couple of hours and present to their classmates and instructor. Students work closely with community experts, participate in authentic learning experiences (ex: meet with a scientist in their lab vs. read about their study online), complete innovative final products, and share their new knowledge with a wide and relevant audience (ex: submit a mini-documentary on habitats to a local nature center.)
A large part of my TPT store is dedicatedt to PBL resources. Check those out here. A great resource to start is my PBL Tool Kit. Students direct their own interest-led PBL experiences. *Note: I have converted, and will continue to convert, many of of PBL resources to include a printable AND digital (paperless) version to use with Google Apps. Check back here throughout the summer for posts on using these resources effectively during the distance learning era.
Ninety percent of this blog is dedicated to project-based learning. If you're interested in learning more about the basics of PBL, click here. Check the archives for more posts on PBL.
2) Problem-Based Learning:
Students identify a problem in the local, national, or global community and develop a "comprehensive plan" that would theoreticaly solve or drastically mitigate a real-world problem. Students research the problem, look at a variety of perspectives around the issue, come at the problem from a several angles, and assemble a plan to solve the problem.
Problem-based learning is an amazing way to encourage active citizenship. Students learn how to identify real-world problems, how to track down the source(s) of the problem, to see issues from many perspectives, and how to go about tackling the issues through a community lens.
You can find several problem-based learning resources in my TPT store, including my problem-based learning tool kit. This tool kit includes the guiding materials for any problem-based learning experience.
3) Community Action Projects:
Community action projects are the most tangible way to practice active citizenship. It is a combination of project-based learning and problem-based learning with an added service-learning component. Community action projects require that students take action. Students dive deeply into a specific community issue, develop an action plan, and TAKE ACTION. This is the most tangible way for students to be active citizens of the world.
Check out this post for more details on community action projects. I have created several community action projects that follow specific themes. Those resources can be found in my TPT store. I also have a tool kit with guiding materials for student-directed community action projects.
I often combine the learning methods mentioned in this post into one large project. My students spend weeks working on projects that result in positive long-term impacts on the community. Students direct their own learning experiences, engage in real-world issues, and actively participate in building and strengthening their communities.
This full experience helps learners develop a deeper understanding of important events and issues in their communities. Through active citizenship, students are able to see their place in the world and why/how their own actions matter.
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Top Young Adult Books for Women's Studies
About ten years ago I picked up a book called "Half the Sky". Within the first chapter I read this quote: "More than 100 million women are missing..." at any given time. This is because of trafficking, gendercide, domestic violence, etc. This quote, and this book, really struck me. I mentioned it, and the PBS documentary that goes along with it, to a few of my high school advisory students. They were interested, largely because many of the issues resonated with them personally. These students led project-based learning experiences on some of the issues and shared their final products with the school community.
One of my coworkers was particularly inspired by their projects and suggested that we start a school-wide book club on women's issues. The interest, participation, and engagement was astounding, from students of all genders and backgrounds. Over the past ten years, since this book club got its start, we have read dozens of books centering around women - women's history, women's oppression, stories of achievement, books with powerful and inspiring female characters, and more.
Girls around the world are faced with extraordinary challenges on a daily basis simply because of their gender. Have your students read these books because they are relevant, real, relatable, teach empathy, and they're interesting. We also all suddenly have a lot of time on our hands with school closures. I connect these books with self-directed project-based and problem-based learning experiences, which is perfect for distance learning when we need our teens to be able to work independently.
Head to TPT to get your hands on these TpT resources - Women's Issues Community Action Project and Women's Studies PBL Project. You can also check out my free Start a PBL Project Cheat to help students design and lead projects on women's studies.
There so many great young adult books, and many books that celebrate and study women. I chose these specific books to add to this list because they are student favorites. Read all books yourself before reading them with kids. Consider your student population, their age and maturity level, backgrounds, etc. Not all books are appropriate for all students. Use discretion.
1. Sold, by Patricia McCormick
I love to read this book with my students because one of the themes it explores is the power of "education". This book is about a young Nepali girl who is sold to a brothel in India. It is an amazing story of perseverance. This book is not a true story but is based on the very real issue of human trafficking.
2. I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erik L. Sanchez
Many adolescents can relate to this book. Although the storyline - a young teenage girl tracking down secrets about the life of her sister who abruptly passes away - is a little out there, but the themes throughout the book are relatable, the focus being on the unreachable expectations of and pressures on girls.
3. Renting Lacy, by Cindy Coloma and Linda Tuhiwai Smith
This was a breakthrough book for my students. This book is based on a true story (true stories), and takes place in the United States. Sex trafficking is a global issue.
4. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T Kira Madden
This is another student favorite. Many of students understand the writer's situation and feelings precisely because they have experienced them first hand. They are part of the "tribe". The book is so well written, however, that even those that do not belong to the "fatherless tribe" take something profound away from this reading experience.
5. Girls Like Us, by Rachel Lloyd
This book is a memoir, a true account of the author's escape from the commercial sex industry as a child. She later founded GEMS - Girls Education and Mentoring Service - to help other young survivors in New York City. More student-directed PBL projects have come out of this book than any of the other books we have read as a group.
6. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
This is such a powerful book about race, police brutality, self-concept, voice confidence, loyalty to family and friendship, and justice, all challenges teens face everyday. All teens should read this book, but I have it on a women's studies reading list because the main character is female. Her gender identity plays an important role in the story.
7. Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld
Uglies is a book series that takes place in a dystopian future. The book chronicles Shay's required surgical transformation from "ugly" child to "stunning" adult. This book evokes dialogue about self-confidence and body image, among other things.
8. Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
Go Ask Alice was written in 1971 and is still relevant today. I first learned of this book from a student and it continues to be a favorite book club read. That is why I included it on this list. The story centers around a girl who develops a drug addiction at age 15 and runs away from home. Although it is classified as a young adult book, there is strong language as well as graphic details of abuse. Read it before reading with students.
9. Refugee, by Alan Gratz
Refugee is not even remotely centered around women's studies. The book focuses on three separate refugee stories that ultimately interconnect in some way. The three main characters are teenagers, one of which is female. Her story, although fictional, blew me away. So, this book is included on this list simply because of this character and her strength, determination, and grit.
10. A Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison
Another book about trafficking! I realize there are many of these on this list, but of all of the women's topics that we read about, my students are the most interested in trafficking.
11. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak is a powerful book about an unfortunately relatable issue; sexual abuse and rape. The main character, Melinda, is raped at a party. Throughout the course of the book she gradually comes to grips with what happened to her. She speaks out and finds her voice. This is an especially important book for young people to read, of all gender identities, in the thick of the "me to" movement.
12. I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced,
by Delphine Minoui and Nujood Ali
Nujood is married off by her father at age ten to a man in his 30's. This book is her TRUE story of child marriage, abuse, and her escape to freedom.
The following books are not young adult books and may be too much for your student population. Each of these books was added to this list because they highlight the bravery, determination, and resiliency of female characters. And my students love them.
"Half the Sky" is what started this journey for me and my students. This book is not really one that students want to read through from front to back. It's not a story; it's journalism. While I read the other books with my students I pull quotes, statistics, and personal stories from Half the Sky.
1. I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai
This memoir is the inspiring story of a young girl from Pakistan who strongly and vocally advocates for girls' education. In doing so she and her family become targets of the Taliban.
2. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
This book is not specifically about women's issues, but the book focuses on several female characters, all faced with a variety of female-centric conundrums from friendship loyalties to motherhood to female reproductive health. READ this book before reading it with students. You may not find it appropriate for your audience.
3. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
This is the story of a girl who is abandoned by her family and is left to fend for and educate herself. It's interesting for students to follow along through the various stages of her life.
4. Educated, by Tara Westover
This is an incredible true story of a girl's struggle in a violent home and the choices and sacrifices she makes to escape the abuse.
5. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
This novel takes place in a dystopian future. In this patriarchal society, women are forced into a variety of roles. The book focuses on the perspectives of these different women and the choices they make to either accept their fate or gain their independence, and at what stakes.
6. The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah
I LOVE this book. I read this book with a few of my students, and the sentiment is shared. The story about a small family that move to Alaska to start over. The father, who suffers from PTSD, is violent toward his teen daughter and wife. This is a powerful story about love, parenthood, loyalty, friendship, survival and so much more.
7. Everything Here is Beautiful, by Mira T. Lee
This is one of my favorite books right now. Everything Here is Beautiful is interesting book about mental health, several stories written from different perspectives. The main characters are sisters, one with bipolar. This topic highly resonates with my student population, but I believe it resonates with most. We have all been impacted by mental illness either directly or indirectly. Mental health is an important topic in and of itself, but I added this book to a list of books on women's studies because of its focus on sisterhood, motherhood, and women's health.
8. 1000 White Women,
I was floored when I learned that this book was based on actual historical events. 1000 white women is a really interesting book about volunteers for the "Brides for Indians" program started by the U.S. government in the 1870's. Aside from that mind-blowing foundation of the story, the side stories and pictures painted of a woman's worth and their role in 1800's America is fascinating.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
My entire teaching career was at one school, and the philosophy is strongly rooted in "community" as the foundation for learning. In nine years teaching there I developed a deep appreciation for student-involvement in the community.
Students have the capacity to make massive waves of change because they are young, technologically savvy, and many injustices happening in the world today are happening to them, impacting them directly. What they need from us are the tools, skills, and knowledge to have their voices heard. They have opinions, they have ideas. They just need a nudge, some guidance, and a little confidence.
I designed a project that gives students the tools, skills, and knowledge that they need for a lifetime of community work and activism. Check out Community Action Projects at Experiential Learning Depot.
My community action projects are entirely student-led. They are a cool mix of project-based learning, problem-based learning, and service-learning. Students identify important issues in the local and global community, explore solutions, create action plans, and take action.
These types of projects teach many important social-emotional skills such as empathy and self-reliance. They help students develop essential life and career skills such as collaboration and responsible citizenship. Most importantly, action in the community gives students the tools to make a positive impact long after they have completed the project, finished the class, or graduated from school.
You can take a look at my Community Action Project Tool Kit for all of the guiding materials needed for student-led CAP.
I also encourage you to grab my project assessment e-portfolio, free when you join my newsletter. Students add project outcomes such as evidence of final products, community collaborations, rubrics, reflections, etc. Have students manage their own community action project learning outcome into one beautiful and easy-to-navigate assessment portfolio for free.
Student-Led Service Learning Projects for Secondary Students
There are many ways students can take action in the community today! Here are four such ways:
1) Giving Time/Volunteering/Community Service:
Giving time is one way students can be active in the community. Students can organize a community involvement club, have a weekly community clean-up days, regular visits to a food shelf, take on a role at a relevant established organization, and so on. Inspire students to identify community issues that matter to them, and to give their time to that cause.
Students love fundraising! Encourage them to direct that spirit toward a cause that is meaningful or relevant in their lives. Many people don't have the means to donate money from their own pockets, especially students. They can plan and host a fundraiser for a specific cause and donate money to a worthy cause that way.
3) Advocating for Legislation:
This is a really important learning experience for students to have in my opinion. In many cases it is the most effective course of action one could take. The Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) coordinates an annual "Legislative Day", where students from across the state come to the capital to speak with their legislators. This is a powerful way for students to be heard. This type of action also teaches students important citizenship concepts, among other things. I had a student who personally contacted her legislator to discuss a bill that would help ex-convicts get jobs, an important and personal issue to this particular student. That legislator traveled a long distance to come and meet with my student.
4) Education/Raising Awareness:
Education is the most effective course of action in making long-term change. Say what you will about social media, but in this case, it is a huge ally. Information travels fast, far and wide when shared on social media platforms. Students are especially competent with technology. A simple awareness campaign poster posted on social media will reach more people in 5 minutes than a flier would in weeks. Encourage your students to utilize these 21st C. communication skills to their benefit and the benefit of the community. If social media is not an option, challenge students to spread awareness far and wide without it.
There are so many ways students can be active members of their communities. What seems like a small and simple gesture may not be small and simple for some. I had a student who wanted to get a crosswalk put into a high traffic area near the school. Getting a crosswalk put in may not bring world peace, but it's something, and an important something to that student and her community.
Change the world one project at a time! Have a great school week everyone.
Normally I would write a post on the importance of advisory culture at the beginning of the school year when students are getting to know you and each other and settle in. I highly recommend revisiting this post in the fall for that reason. However, around this time, classroom moral can tend to take a dive. Students are exhausted, the winter keeps dragging on, state testing is on the horizon, seniors are anxious about what the future holds, and so on. I understand these feelings, as I feel many of them myself. This is the time to reflect, reset, and kickstart spring with a renewed attitude. I have found that this is best accomplished by starting at the source: classroom culture.
When your advisory (or any learning group for that matter) is strong, a positive attitude, motivation, productivity, inspiration, and engagement tend to follow. By "strong advisory" I mean a group that trusts one another, is inspired by each other, work well together and are enthusiastic about doing so, and support each other through the tough moments. There is a kinship, a camaraderie that is so unique to this specific group of individuals.
So, if you're feeling a lull in your advisory, classroom, homeschool co-op, or any other learning group, start by building the group back up. I wouldn't say that I am the best educator out there, but I can say that I have always had a strong advisory/class culture, and that is the result of making this extraordinary bond a priority.
Check out some of the activities that I have done with my advisory and other learning groups to improve advisory culture.
How to Build a Strong Advisory Community
Create advisory goals as a group. Examples:
Create advisory rules and/or expectations together. It may seem counterproductive to have students weigh in when it comes to class rules. Their rule would be “the rules are there are no rules!”, right? Surprisingly, this is not how students respond when you tell them they will participate in creating and implementing their own group rules. The class rules or “expectations” if you prefer, will in part reflect their advisory goals. For example, if one of the advisory goals is to cultivate a safe and productive learning environment, one rule might be to respect everyone’s space and physical boundaries at all times. Allowing students the opportunity to set the rules gives them voice and accountability. Doing this at the beginning of the year then sets the precedent that their voices are heard and respected by you. If it is mid-year, come back to these goals. Use them as a reminder or modify them as a group.
Advisory Group Challenge:
A favorite thing to do with my students at the beginning of each year (and periodically after that when we need a little pick-me-up) is to take them out of the building to do something together, preferably something challenging. I usually take my students to climb a fire tower, hike to a breathtaking view or lookout, or hit up a city skyscraper, taking the stairs to the top. Each of these activities are both physically and mentally challenging, especially if those participating have a fear of heights. Therefore, it is a great accomplishment for students to achieve together.
I have found that these experiences foster group mentality. Each individual makes it their personal goal to get everyone to the top. They support each other, and the results, whether that be the accomplishment or the view, are well worth it. Of course there are some logistical obstacles to consider, and this isn't an option for everyone. If this type of experience isn't possible for your group, use the basic concept to create a similar bonding experience - 1) non-competitive, 2) challenging but not impossible, 3) there is a common/group goal in mind.
Advisory Theme Project:
Ask students during the first week of school to complete mini-projects (independently or in pairs) under a specific theme, and have them present to the other advisories at the end of the week.
Theme ideas: make a short documentary, upcycling projects, family traditions, cooking, create a game, hobbies, try something new. The options are endless. This activity gets students on the same page, working toward the same goal. They feel united by a common objective.
Check out all my project-based learning resources in my TpT store. Students choose their own project sub-topic under a specific theme.
Brand Your Advisory:
I usually have my advisory come up with an advisory name at the beginning of the school year. I have a small group, so we usually sit in a circle on the first day, or within the first few days of school and talk one out. Ideas are thrown out, we vote, a name is established. A name is fun, but useless in the long-run if it is never used. If you're feeling a lull later in the year, propose the following add-ons:
There is no better way to build a strong group culture than giving. There are a variety of ways you could do this. I have found these experiences to be most successful when I give the students voice, when they are passionate about the issue or purpose, and when the experience involves the entire group. All it takes is a little class discussion to spark some service-learning ideas. Many of our group service learning projects have been inspired by current events. We watch Vice News episodes together and go from there. Check out my Vice News episode worksheets and extension activities to get students inspired. You can also head to my Community Action Projects, which provides all of the guiding materials and templates for student-directed service learning experiences.
Plan and Host School Events:
Hosting school events and activities really bring students together. It is something that they can take pride in executing as a team. My students have planned some of the following school-wide activities.
Student-Led Advisory Fundraisers:
Every year my students choose to plan several fundraisers with the intention of raising money to add to the class budget. The money we raise almost always goes towards field trips. They could also donate the money to a charity. The process of planning and executing an event is such a great way to build a strong community within your advisory.
Large Group Project:
Unlike the theme project that is done independently or in small groups, this is a project done as entire advisory group. It takes quite a bit of coordination on your part but is worth the time and energy spent. Each student of the advisory plays a role in the bigger picture. My students have done all of the examples below. There are so many more options! Talk with your group.
Advisory Book Club:
Discuss book interests, take a vote, and settle on STUDENT-CHOSEN books to read for an advisory book club. Read together in class or have them read on their own time and meet back as a group for book discussion.
A “family” meal is when the advisory cooks and shares a meal together. It’s a very informal way of sitting down, enjoying food together and having some casual conversation. It breaks away from the academic rigors of the day and gives us time to just enjoy each other’s company. It also teaches some pretty basic life skills that some students haven’t yet mastered, such as contributing to the clean-up process or setting the table.
Sparks and Community Experts:
Invite community members into your class periodically to speak. It can be on anything. It could be related to a current event you’re discussing in class. It could be related to one of the life skills seminars you are giving. It might just be an interesting speaker that you think your students might like. It could be ANYONE. Examples:
Phew! That was a lot. The experiential school where I have been my entire teaching career highly values and encourages relationship building. My learning space was to be safe, trusting, inspiring, exciting, supportive, encouraging and so on and so on. If you are sensing apathy, discouragement, behavioral issues, conflicts between students, etc., start to remedy the situation by building that classroom community back up. Hopefully there is something here in this post that you can start with! Good luck!
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I love the quote below, for one, because Amy Poehler said it. I also like to use it as the goal for my advisory: to create a space for my students where they are "challenged and inspired".
"Authentic" is a buzzword in the project-based learning world. Authenticity is the foundation of PBL and plays a role in every step of the process from project design to final evaluation. That is one feature that separates project-based learning from other teaching methods. The learning experiences, final product, resources, presentation, assessment, reflection, etc. should all be authentic - they should be relevant, real, have meaning and purpose in the lives of learners.
For example, an authentic learning experience would be one in which a student interviews an oncologist vs. reads about cancer on Wikipedia. An authentic final product might be a mini-documentary that follows the experience of a cancer survivor vs. a poster board with tidbits of information about cancer. An authentic presentation would be hosting a community screening of the mini-documentary vs. a presentation to the class.
This post is specifically about that authentic presentations.
Backtrack a few weeks to posts from my project-based learning series for more details on PBL.
What is an authentic presentation?
An authentic presentation is the demonstration of new skills and knowledge to a relevant audience in the community. The idea is that the information or the final product reaches an audience that could use the final product or benefit from the material in some way, where the learner can experience and visualize their new understanding of a concept or skill at play in real life. A presentation that is not authentic would be one given to the class followed by the final product getting tossed in the trash, never to be thought of again. An authentic presentation would leave a mark on the community, and depending on the nature of the presentation, possibly make a profound long-term impact (check out my community action projects, a type of project-based learning that leaves a lasting impact on the local or global community).
Why bother with authentic presentations?
One reason to incorporate authentic presentations is quality. When students know their final product will be seen by more than the teacher they up their game a bit. Other benefits include encouraging community collaboration, building communication and networking skills, promoting citizenship, enhancing students' worldview, understanding their local and gobal communities, and more. The result is deeper learning, learning that goes beyond content knowledge. This is true because learners construct meaning through real-life experiences. They see relevance and purpose as it relates to their lives.
Authentic Presentation Ideas
Reaching a relevant audience and making an impact on the community doesn't mean your students have to do public speeches everyday. Speaking to a community audience, such as performing an original skit on bullying to a local elementary assembly, is one way to deliver new skills and knowledge in an authentic way. There are other ways for those educators and learners that are confined to the classroom. Other options include publishing work on digital media such as a blog, submitting work to an online publication or contest, displaying student work in the community, and even bringing the audience to you.
One way of bringing an authentic audience to your students is to host exhibition or presentation events at the school or at your home (if you are a home educator). This gives students the chance to showcase their work to the community. Invite relevant community members, family members, friends, and experts utilized in student projects. The cover photo is of one such exhibition night that my school hosts quarterly.
Check out the graphic organizer below for more authentic presentation ideas. My students use this organizer when designing their projects. Feel free to do the same with your students. A free printable version can be found at Experiential Learning Depot.
Example of an Authentic Presentation in Project-Based Learning:
You assign a PBL project to your life science class. They are to do a project on symbiotic relationships. Each student designs their own project around this topic. Each student chooses how they will find the information, which experts to connect with, how they would like to demonstrate learning, how they would like to present it and who will be their audience (other than the teacher and class). This is what the PBL process looks like in my seminars. I give the topic and the learners direct the learning experience (with my guidance). I will be doing a post in the near future on the steps involved in student-directed project-based learning. Stay-tuned for that. In the meantime, I highly recommend reading Passion for Learning by Ronald Newell.
One student decides to create an infographic on the different types of symbiotic relationships (authentic final product). She collaborates with an ecology professor from a nearby university and a graphic designer in the area (authentic learning experiences). They work together to create a professional quality infographic with solid, accurate information. The student then needs to determine how she will share her learning experience with a relevant audience that will benefit from the information and/or the final product itself (authentic presentation).
Examples of Authentic Presentation Options for this Project Using the Graphic Organizer Above:
1) Distribute Final Product to a Relevant Audience in the Community:
2) Display Final Product to a Relevant Audience in the Community:
3) Present Final Product to a Relevant Audience in the Community:
4) Publish the Final Product:
5) Share your Final Product Digitally:
Good luck! If you're overwhelmed by the possibilities, utilize some of the organizational templates provided in my store, including the one above. Many of them are free. Implementing authentic experiences in your curriculum does not have to be chaotic. Even student-directed learning can have structure and SHOULD be teacher facilitated. I am a firm advocate for authentic learning and love to talk about it. If you have questions or are seeking out advice or tips, please reach out. I would be ecstatic to help out!
My TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot, is filled with PBL learning resources. Check them out if you think project-based learning is something you might love to try with your students.
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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?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
Spring is the perfect time of year for citizen science! It's warming up outside, students are getting antsy and exhausted, testing is underway, breaks are badly needed. On top of that, things start to get active in the world of wildlife, especially in temperate regions like Minnesota. Animals emerge from hibernation, migrating species begin their long journeys to their summer sanctuaries, and it's breeding season for many organisms.
Citizen science is when citizens, like your students, have the opportunity to play an active role in wildlife studies or projects going on around the world that benefit from participation by citizens. Hawk Watch International, for example, hosts hawk counting events at their migration sites that anyone can participate in. Volunteers count passing hawks and record their count to an online database.
Citizen science is a great learning tool for many reasons. One is the application of science concepts to the real-world. Participating in citizen science also shows students that they can play a role in improving the community and the world around them. They are active citizens, an important 21st-century skill.
I highly encourage organizing classwide citizen science activities or taking a project-based learning approach to citizen science. Take a look at my PBL Toolkit to get students rolling on citizen science PBL projects. Using my Community Action Projects resource is one project-based learning approach that makes sense in this case, as students would be actively participating in projects that better the community.
The following is a list of some of my favorite citizen science projects to use with my high school students AND my own young children. The projects listed below are appropriate for ALL ages. You could get students involved either part of school curriculum, at home for homeschool projects, on a family camping trip, or over the summer to keep students busy and sharp, among other things, There are many more citizen science programs out there other than the 20 listed below. I'd love to know about others that you've done with your students!
20 Citizen Science Projects for Students of All Ages
1. Globe at Night
The purpose of this project is to raise awareness about light pollution and its impact on communities. Students can report their night sky brightness observations daily. All they need is a computer or phone. This would be a great supplemental learning experience to a broader PBL project on light pollution.
This website has a variety of projects to get involved in, which is nice when it comes to student-directed learning. Students can pick a citizen science project in line with their interests such as insects, mammals, migrating species, invasive species and more. What's really cool about this website is that is promotes communication and collaboration with naturalists and research scientists.
3. Project Budburst
Project Budburst focuses on plant observations. The intention of the program is to understand human impact on wildlife, particularly plants. One area of focus right now is determining how plants are and will continue to respond to climate change. This site has a tab for educators with age specific learning activity recommendations.
4. Project Noah
Project Noah is another citizen science option that emphasizes wildlife observation and inquiry. There is a section for educators that has a "classroom" feature where teachers can set up and manage class citizen science projects. The education section also provides investigation ideas from mimicry to backyard ecology. This is a great option for homeschoolers as well. You can add as many students to the "class" as you wish. It would be a great independent PBL project because citizen science naturally collaborative, an important element of PBL.
5. Project Squirrel
This citizen science project seems a bit dull. I mean, squirrels? They're so ubiquitous and kind of a nuisance. They aren't rare. They aren't large predators. They are a slightly cuter version of a rat. Squirrels, however, can tell us a lot about the health of the surrounding environment. Students can get involved in this project by recording squirrel observations and photos. It's a more interesting and hands-on way to learn about ecosystems. There is also a special experiment students can get involved in that looks at food patches.
This resource is incredible. What's different about Zooniverse compared to the other citizen science options mentioned so far is that the projects cross disciplines. There are projects on climate, history, literature, medicine and even art, not just natural science. One of the projects on there right now is called "Anti-Slavery Manuscripts". This project was added by the Boston Public Library to include citizens in transcribing their collection of letters written by anti-slavery activists. I think the best feature of this website is that students can create their own citizen science projects to add to the site, which citizens from all over the world can then contribute to. That would be a really cool PBL project and deep learning experience for older students or as a class project. I used to do large group projects like this with my advisory.
SciStarter is similar to Zooniverse in that there are a variety of citizen science projects available to choose from AND students can create their own. It is essentially a massive catalog of citizen science projects. One of my favorite things about this website is their blog. The blog articles illuminate the impact of citizen science on our understanding of the world.
This is a super black and white, straightforward catalog of citizen science projects in the U.S. It is not fancy and does not have a special section for educators like many of the websites mentioned so far. However, the catalog is exhaustive. If you are having your learners do student-directed PBL projects, this website is a great place to start. They can search for ideas relevant to their interests.
9. World Water Monitoring Challenge
This project is fantastic for raising awareness and educating students on water issues across the globe. Students monitor their local waterways by performing water quality tests. Consider implementing scientific open-inquiry labs on water quality in your area (check out my inquiry-based learning toolkit for guiding materials - I also have several student-directed water pollution activities in my store including inquiry, PrBL and PBL..) Students that are especially passionate about this issue and want to get more involved can apply to be ambassadors on the website. The downside to this citizen science project is that it is not free. Specific water quality kits need to be purchased to participate. One upside (of many) is that it's global.
10. The Great Backyard Bird Count
This citizen science project is only open for participation a few days per year. There are four designated days for citizens from all over the world to count birds. This year (2019), almost 33 million birds were counted. Students can count birds, submit observations, and explore the data. There is also a photo contest students can take part in! Your students will need access to smartphones and the eBird app to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. Hawk Watch International, which I mentioned above, is a similar program, but specific to hawks.
11. Journey North
Journey North is a citizen science option that specifically focuses on migrating species such as the monarch butterfly and whooping cranes. There are many organisms to choose from as well as specific projects. The Symbolic Migration project is one example where students from around the world create paper butterflies and send them to students in Mexico. Those students then care for them through the winter and return them in the spring, symbolizing butterfly migration. This is a cool way to integrate art, geography, science, history, and culture, as well as to encourage global learning and collaboration. My kids and I participate in the loon program each spring, which is the MN state bird (my place of residence).
12. Butterflies and Moths of North America
As the title of this citizen science option suggests, this particular project is specific to butterfly and moth sightings across North America. Students can take photographs and record sighting locations of butterflies, moths, and/or caterpillars to the database. Students can open and analyze data maps. This is another one that is easy to participate in as long as you're in North America. Migrating moths and butterflies use the north as a summer sanctuary and the south as a winter sanctuary. They can be found in most environments from urban gardens to national parks. My students and children take part in this project every spring.
13. WildCam Gorongosa
This project can be found and your group managed through Zooniverse (#6). Scientists and conservationists need help tracking and identifying species in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Students scroll through photos taken by wildcams placed in the park. Students identify organisms and their behaviors IN the photos. That's one interesting thing about this citizen science project; students can participate from anywhere in the world, including in a classroom. I understand some educators don't have the flexibility to get out of the building everyday to view wildlife. This is a great option for those in this situation. The "lab" tab in the upper right corner of the homepage is a place for educators to compile class data, which might come from an inquiry investigation for example. Students can also discuss what they see with other volunteers and scientists. It's highly collaborate, and pretty addicting once you start!
14. Nature's Notebook
This website is geared toward educators. Nature's Notebook focuses heavily on phenology monitoring, but what's cool is that you can create your own phenology monitoring program with your students that is relevant to your community. Your students could consider starting a citizen science program as an upper level project-based learning experience.
15. The Wildlab Bird
The Wildlab Bird is another citizen science opportunity offered by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Students observe birds near their learning spaces and report sightings of GPS-tagged birds to Wildlab. One thing that is unique to this citizen science option is that they promote STEM. They put a strong emphasis on integrating technology, so much so, that they will provide iPhones to your students for this project. They will also visit your school or other learning environment free of cost to help you get started.
16. Celebrate Urban Birds
This project encourages urbanites to observe their surroundings and appreciate wildlife. You don't have to be in the middle of a national park to find wildlife. This is a great project for urban students that don't have easy access to natural areas.
17. Project FeederWatch
I love this project! There are so many learning opportunities built into it. It is not simply a matter of counting birds in your school yard. You could take advantage of design thinking by having your students build their own bird feeders. The shape, structure size, color, and food included will all be dependent on the bird they're hoping to attract and count. In order to find this information students will have to do some research on the natural history of birds in their community. You could split your students up into groups, have each team determine a bird of focus, design a birdfeeder specific to the species of their choice, and then observe and count the birds to report to Project FeederWatch. This would be a great PBL experience.
18. School of Ants
The purpose of this program is for citizens to help create a thorough map of ant species and their ranges across North America. This is a great supplemental activity or could be a PBL project in itself. Students would learn about the natural history of ants in North America, what they eat, their behaviors, distribution, and more while contributing to real science. This website has many resources for educators as well.
19. The Lost Ladybug Project
Another one on insects! The Lost Ladybug Project asks citizens to help them collect ladybugs, photograph them, and submit the images along with some basic information such as location, date, habitat, etc, to their database. This could be a great supplemental activity to a larger discussion or unit on topics like invasive species, habitats, competition, evolution, genetics, and more. Be creative, or let your students get creative by having them conduct student-led scientific open inquiry investigations.
20. The Great Sunflower Project
The Great Sunflower Project emphasizes pollinators, a hugely important topic and one that has been in the spotlight for quite some time, as our pollinators are at risk. There are a few ways to get students involved in this program. One way is to have them grow sunflowers, monitor pollinator visitors, and test the effects of pesticides on the pollinators. Students can also participate in pollinator counts anytime, anywhere, even in the school yard or in their home gardens. As a project-based teacher, I think this final option is the coolest way to get involved; students can learn about important habitats for pollinators by literally creating their own pollinator habitat such as a bee or butterfly garden.
Thanks for visiting! I hope you're able to get your students involved in at least one of these citizen science projects this spring. By introducing them now, they can take over and continue to stay involved on their own throughout the summer and into next year. I'd love to know about anymore citizen science projects not mentioned here that would be worth looking into.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources. There are a couple free ecology resources available to download.
Photo Credit: Many of the photos above were taken directly from the citizen science websites cited. The quote photo, blog cover, butterfly photo, bird photos, butterfly art piece, and child looking at butterfly catalog were taken by Experiential Learning Depot.
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.