Restoring place-based knowledge to education and citizenship

Restoring place-based knowledge to education and citizenship

Author: Darcy Higgins - Biography

A journey into ways to ground people in their local ecosystems in Columbia, Missouri and Athens, Ohio.


..more effort should be expended in making the natural world fundamental to people’s lives.

-James Miller, “Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience”

An introduction to myself and this portfolio.

The creeks that trickle through southeast Ohio are rusty, vivid orange. Some call them sulphur creeks and claim the water’s good for poison ivy; others don’t give them a second thought, assuming the color is clay or some other natural mineral. Once, a very young child drew a picture of a stream for me, coloring a bright orange ribbon rather than blue.

The pollution is called acid mine drainage, and it’s the result of abandoned coal mines that have tunneled under our hills like swiss cheese. The water is not harmful to humans, but its low pH kills fish and insect life. It is a highly visible and impactful part of the landscape here, a part of the legacy of coal mining that has shaped our towns. Yet no one has ever bothered to explain it to most of the children here, even when they play in it. 

I was similarly oblivious to much of the world around me when I became an AmeriCorps member in the region, my first job in environmental education. I could barely tell a buck from a buckeye tree. Spending two years learning about the ecology and history of the land I stood on transformed me. Although I had lived in Athens County for four years before that, I felt like I was living in an entirely new place, alive with old stories from the rocks and creeks and history buffs who hung out by the opera house they were restoring.

Acid mine drainage seep on Truetown Rd., Athens County, Ohio
The Truetown acid mine drainage seep in Athens County, Ohio, 2020. Photo: Rural Action

Having an understanding of the basic forces shaping your life and your home is, to me, an essential need and source of dignity. We do a disservice to children when they do not know why the creeks they inherited are orange. The philosophy of bioregionalism argues that our political, cultural, and economic identities should be related to our regional biomes; that, say, being a resident of the Missouri River watershed or Cascadia mountains could be a meaningful alternative to thinking of oneself as a resident of Minneapolis or Oregon (Sale, 1985). Local places hold lore, ecology, and history that are essential context for our everyday lives. 

But often this place-based knowledge is treated as optional. It is not prioritized like globally transportable skills of math or business in an economy where the most successful people move across the country whenever a job opportunity demands it. One researcher in my region of southeast Ohio found that disaffected rural high school students saw success by school’s standards as equivalent to rejecting their local community (Hendrickson, 2012).

The educator David Sobel recognizes that environmental education is also sometimes guilty of treating local knowledge as unimportant. Take one of the most popular activities associated with Earth Day: teaching children to save the rainforest (or today, perhaps the sea turtles) (Sobel, 1996). Teaching about distant disasters, especially before abstract thinking is fully developed in young children, tends to alienate children, instill hopelessness, and leave them less likely to act. Would it not be more beneficial to first teach about the fields and ponds near the school? These places are not only tangible, exploreable, and more relevant to children’s lives; children are also more likely to be able to take action to impact these places’ well-being (Sobel, 1996). 

Robert Pyle proposed the idea of the ‘extinction of experience’ in 1978, which suggests that as people become more disconnected from nature, they become apathetic to its well-being. In a negative feedback loop, the natural environment becomes more degraded, and people feel even less invested in it (Pyle, 1978; Miller, 2005). Related is the idea of a “shifting baseline,” in which children growing up in damaged ecosystems use those as their reference point for what nature looks like and should be protected. Standards are lowered for each generation, oblivious of what has been lost (Pauly, 1995; Soga and Gaston, 2018). Surely the children in southeast Ohio, playing in the dead orange creeks, have a right to experience a living creek, and know it could be otherwise.

Because I am an educator, I have taken on the work of restoring bioregional knowledge primarily through working with children. However, place-based knowledge is essential for adults and children alike, a skill that can make us better community members and decision-makers. A strong sense of place can contribute to our sense of belonging or purpose (Proshansky, 1978; Sack,1997), and connection to nature improves our mental and physical well-being (Ulrich,1993). Wendell Berry is perhaps the best icon of this attitude. He puts stewardship of the land in the hands of the people live and work on it. Good stewardship demands not only ecological care, but social participation in community and local governance as well (Berry 1996, 1990).

Throughout my M.A.T. graduate work in Miami University/Project Dragonfly, I focused on projects that could foster a sense of place in youth. This makes my work part of the place-based education movement, which uses communities’ ecological, cultural, and economic issues as a lens for learning (Getting Smart and Teton Science School, n.d.). My teaching approach was guided by the research of Louise Chawla (1999, 2007). Chawla found that the best predictor of pro-environmental behavior as an adult is positive time spent in nature as a child, with an appreciative adult role model. As such, I prioritized meaningful experiences of local nature in my teaching. I also prioritized student-led inquiry and genuine participation in real projects, aiming to work high on the ‘ladder of participation’ described by Hart (Hart, 1997). Student-directed, participatory work creates more opportunity for the meaningful experience with nature that Chawla (2007) advocates, as well as gives students practice in the self-efficacy and ability to take action that is part of environmental literacy. 

The portfolio below explores the projects I undertook to nurture place-based knowledge in the two places I lived while working on this degree: Columbia, Missouri, near the Missouri River; and southeast Ohio, in the Appalachian foothills. In each place, this mission took the form of:

  •  lessons and activities I personally taught; 
  • supporting public schools and teachers to have more capacity to include place-based education; 
  • and undertaking my own research to inform bioregional decision-making. 


Bioregional Identity in Young People

What if your local watershed was as significant to you as knowing the name of your town or state? When thinking about bioregional identity, watersheds are a logical unit. They reflect boundaries inherent in the land rather than imposed by politics; and because the water connects the people through a watershed in its health or pollution, it is a relevant decision-making context. Through the following projects, I developed strategies for orienting children to their watersheds through several strategies.

Child-led Watershed Inquiries in a Democratic School Setting

In my early years in the MAT in Missouri, I co-founded a small school that operated mostly outside and gave students democratic control over school activities. Because students had considerable freedom in how they spent their time and attention at Wild Folk, it was essential to work with their natural interests and energy. Teaching effectively in this style was a central challenge I explored during this time, and I explored this challenge in my MAT course lesson plans. How could I provide new information, experiences, or challenges to children that helped their play become richer in learning?

One of my first attempts at this was to write a flexible, inquiry-based unit based around exploring creeks. As was typical during the early days of the school, the unit wasn’t carried out as I wrote it for class; we never held a session of the “creek science club” I planned out. But the lesson plan did provide certain routines and rituals that I was able to turn into habits at our school, such as sharing observations and questions at circle and returning to them again as a class. Comfort with these kinds of routines is immensely helpful when teaching in a truly child-led inquiry-based way, where students participate in building the research questions (Hart, 1997). 

This experience of trying multiple approaches to teaching about creeks helped our little school mature and refine our approach. We shifted from a purer unschooling or Sudbury Valley approach, which gives students the ultimate choice on how they spend all their time, to more of an emergent curriculum approach, where teachers work with students’ interests but provide regular provocations and direction (Gray, 2015; Jones & Nimmo, 1994).

The inconsistently-applied initial lesson plan turned into a much more thorough and successful unit the next year, when we spent an entire semester studying water. That semester kicked off with a watershed walk: starting from the dry ditches next to the school, we followed the water until it became a stream and then the main creek running through downtown. We were able to work with the observations that students made for the rest of the semester, and their understanding of connections among local waterways, roads and parks was unmatched. After the early experiment with the inquiry-based creek club, this subsequent unit worked out the balance of offering the students direction and giving them freedom.

Students built a 3D model of the Flat Branch Creek watershed, and painted it to reflect land uses we observed through the neighborhood.This 3D model of the local Flat Branch Creek watersheds was one outcome of the watershed walk students took. Although this model was not part of the original creek club lesson plan that I wrote for class, it grew out of the trial-and-error of the earlier approach.  Taken Sept. 2016 at Wild Folk Learning Community.

Connecting Schools to the Missouri River

Our watershed, of course, was much bigger than the mile and a half it took our little school to walk to Flat Branch Creek. We were only a few miles from the Missouri River, whose watershed covers ⅙ of the US. I began collaborating with the non-profit Missouri River Relief (MRR) on their educational work to figure out how we could connect public schools to this immense system of water.

To target outreach efforts, I created an interactive map of all schools within a walking distance of Missouri River along its entire length (see the image below). The hope was that schools with such easy access to the river would be more receptive to incorporating the Missouri River into their curriculum.The map is now a resource used by MRR education coordinator and education committee to inform outreach.

Although I considered myself well-informed about my regional watersheds, nothing tests that like creating useable maps of the nesting waterways. Dividing such an enormous area of land into useable units required me to develop a more applied understanding of the way water moves, watersheds divide, and people access water than I had before. 

At the same time, I was assisting with field trips to the river and smaller creeks with both public school groups and my small Wild Folk school. The logistics of taking kids to a safe, interesting and accessible section of riverbank challenged me to consider how well I actually knew my local waterways from tangible experience, as opposed to book knowledge. Trying to connect people to these watersheds at various scales forced me to go into a deeper personal relationship with the river as well. 

The mapping project also prepared me to better understand the challenges and opportunities for community groups to partner with schools. Although I connected the map to databases that provided school contact information, this was of limited use compared to more personal relationships with schools and teachers in the community. There are so many barriers in getting to the river beyond whether students are within 0.5 mile walking distance, and we could only get to know those barriers well in communities nearer to us. However, the perspective of the map still gave MRR’s education projects reach and connections beyond just our state near the bottom of the river, which still holds potential for the organization.

After creating the map, my partnership with MRR grew into co-developing a 4th grade Missouri River unit. I piloted the unit at multiple schools in Columbia, Missouri, reaching 250 students. After the pilot, MRR partnered with University of Missouri to revise the curriculum and engage teachers in professional development, leading to a paper presented at the 2019 NSTA Conference. This curriculum may be made accessible to schools across the entire watershed, as identified on the map.

A detail of the map I created of schools within .5 miles of the Missouri RiverA screenshot of the map I created for Missouri River Relief in October 2015. The red line shows the 0.5-mile corridor we considered to be walking distance from the river, and the text box shows details on a school located within that distance.

A Manifesto of the Power of Place and Identity in Southeast Ohio

In environmental education, it is common to talk about concrete goals such as improved environmental literacy or a river clean-up. But part of what I was seeing in my work was a more soulful shift. When our professional media writing course prompted us to craft an article to submit for publication, I attempted to communicate some of the ways that working place into identity impacts people’s well-being and social justice. The resulting article, “Finding One’s Place,” is currently under consideration for publication by Rethinking Schools magazine

The process reinforced the importance of being a voice for how environmental education can improve community and personal well-being. Many people see environmental education as all about learning science or encouraging environmental stewardship. The importance of nature connection to health, mental well-being, and personal identity is much less discussed--not to mention the ways that being separated from one’s place has been a major part of our culture’s history of oppression, from enslaved Africans, to Native Americans, to British peasants.  For this reason, I chose to submit my article to publications focused on social justice and tolerance education, rather than green publications. 

I discovered that writing the article also helped me be an advocate for my own region of Appalachian Ohio. As I wrote about the importance of place in one’s identity, I also made an argument in defense of all that is beautiful and meaningful here. Beyond what I can include in this portfolio, the unique ecology and culture of our area has turned into amazing educational opportunities on unions, the tradition of selling wild ginseng, lichens, glacial refuges, and mushroom hunting. Teaching in a way that embraces students’ cultural and lived experiences is a good practice; and the appreciation for home that I want to celebrate with my students came through as I wrote the article as well. As it turned out, this challenge to some of the stereotypes of Appalachia is what intrigued the editors at Rethinking

Inquiry for Localized Decision-making

During my graduate work, I conducted independent research into local wild areas that were at the center of community decisions. This was research that might not have been considered relevant to a national audience, but provided a missing piece to local debates: data about the lands in question. 

This task may not seem the work of a teacher. But given the importance of modelling for children how to interact with the natural world appreciatively, I considered it an important piece of living out what I hoped my students would become empowered to do--to go out, investigate what’s happening in their community with curiosity, and bring their own knowledge to local decision-making.

Understanding the uses and limitations of citizen science data

Before undertaking the projects below, gaining some understanding about citizen science’s potential and limitations was necessary. Like I found with the BioBlitz of the Wayne, enthusiasm for citizen science as an engagement tool is high, but faith in its reliability for actual scientific research is shakier. I synthesized the research on citizen science data to gain better understanding of just how scientifically useful it was. 

This question is important because we often motivate our participants by telling them they are truly contributing to an important project; it would undermine our work if their contributions were not truly needed. Additionally, it might be possible to improve the usefulness of citizen science projects with a few simple changes. 

The literature revealed that citizen science data is often useful, but it requires a larger sample size to accommodate the datasets’ tendency to be noisier than professionally-collected data. Often, projects are good candidates for citizen science if they require a larger or geographically wider dataset than a small team of professionals could collect personally. Project designers also need to determine whether they need data that can only be relied on from a stricter collection protocol, or if more casual observations that only prove presence of species (rather than abundance or absence) are sufficient. 

This research background has empowered me to make more informed decisions about which citizen science projects to engage students with, understanding their potential and limitations. Citizen science is somewhat popular currently, and without conducting this research, it would have been easy to assume all are equally valuable; instead, I can distinguish between educational and scientific outcomes of a project. It reinforced for me the importance of being not only an educator, but also a researcher and community scientist. As environmental educators, our word about science is often immediately trusted, and it is important to create a culture of rigorously verifying the source of our knowledge. 

The Columbia, Missouri Bike Path Connector

In 2015, an unusual set of groups were in heated disagreement with each other: nature preservationists and a bicycle/pedestrian advocacy group. The bicycle group and the city were planning to build a bridge that would connect two disconnected networks of bicycle paths, dramatically improving the practicality of bike commuting (see the map below). But the bridge would go through a rare wooded patch of urban land, and nature-lovers in nearby neighborhoods organized as defenders of the urban wild. 

Diagram of two proposed options for the Shepard-Rollins bicycle trail connector
Diagram of proposed options for the Shepard-Rollins trail connector from the City of Columbia, MO.

 I wondered about the underlying premise of the dispute: do bike paths in Columbia actually impact biodiversity or not? I conducted a plant diversity study comparing parks with and without paths. I found that, on average, Columbia’s parks all had low biodiversity and high numbers of invasives, regardless whether bicycle paths were present. A few outlier patches of diversity existed in non-pathed areas, and identifying these spots for protection seemed a possible route for compromise.

However, my work ultimately did not enter the debate or impact outcomes. This was my first attempt at an inquiry action project, and I lacked confidence in my results: the data had to be collected in the fall rather than a more abundant time of year, my sampling sites were somewhat few, and I had done it all by myself. I hesitated to advertise results widely. Looking back, I should have more confidence in my work, but even more importantly, I should have engaged community more deeply in the project. If I could do it again, I would collaborate with the arguing groups before starting, making sure there was input on methods and interest in the results, instead of trying to carry it all myself and not having strong enough connections to put the results to use. I learned that action research is much more useful when created in community.

BioBlitzing the Wayne National Forest

This citizen science project was started by educators, and it shows. My co-workers and I at Rural Action in Ohio conducted wildly successful, engaging data collection days with multiple local high schools, and led identification hikes that engaged many community members. But after three years and 14,500 observations, we had a lot of data and were not sure what to do with it. I engaged with the data to see what possibilities were in it for actually informing land management choices at the range, and ways the data could be improved. I also engaged a 5th grade class in analyzing the data and comparing it to data they collected in their land lab, to see if the WNF BioBlitz could be leveraged for meaningful smaller projects in the community. 
Mapping hotspots of observations of threatened species from the Wayne National Forest BioBlitz. I located a hotspot around north of the Burr Oak State Park lake.
Using the observations collected in iNaturalist in the Wayne, I discovered that the area north of Burr Oak State Park's lake was a relative hotspot for observations of threatened species. Map created for Rural Action in October, 2020.

The experience showed that the platform was an excellent tool for taking educational experiences from theoretical to applicable, as the students had real results and good action ideas in response to it. It has shifted the way we teach the BioBlitz to include more steps of the scientific process, not just the data collection piece. Although the results did not make significant contributions to the land management process at the Wayne, they did spur conversations about the project that are encouraging our education program to consider more conservation goals in our programs, not only educational outcomes. The process made me better at using truly local places and problems as the basis for my teaching, rather than using generic national EE curriculum. To do this requires me to actually have detailed experiences of wild places and society through our region myself, and engaging with this deep dive into the Wayne and people who love it forced me to gain that localized knowledge. I will be a better guide to the local area.

Whiteboard on which a 5th grade class has created a chart comparing BioBlitz data on their school, a neighboring school, and the Wayne National Forest
Comparing BioBlitz data with 5th graders at Logan Middle School. They combed through iNaturalist to compare their school to a nearby high school and the Wayne National Forest as a whole.


When a friend visited me in Ohio, she laughed at my seeming enthusiasm to show her an acid mine drainage seep. In her view, pollution was not a must-see spot for a tourist. This hadn’t occurred to me. Over my years in environmental education, it simply had become something that was important to understand, if you wanted to understand our home or me. 

Writers of bioregionalism speak of not just residing in a place, but inhabiting it. The habit of inhabiting builds this awareness of connection even to a pollution seep. Every time I sought to connect my students to an important place-based topic, from watersheds to forest biodiversity, the depth of my own relationship to our home was challenged and grew. I may have known what watershed I lived in in Missouri, for example. But until I walked with my students with it, did I know the different land uses within it, or where the creek suffered or where it thrived? I thought I understood the biodiversity of Appalachian Ohio’s forests, but did I know where I could take children in the Wayne National Forest to see native spring flowers bloom, and where we’d find only multiflora? 

Conducting these projects while pursuing a Project Dragonfly degree helped me reflect on them, as well as connect them to the larger context of research and conservation. This has helped me grow my understanding of my role as an educator, to see myself also as a role model who embodies many ways children can learn to be bioregional inhabitants--not only a teacher, but a scientist, a policy researcher, a walk-taker and creek steward, an author and advocate. Places are interdisciplinary, and I learned to be as well. Basing my educational practice in rigorous inquiry, engagement with community, and peers across the world helped me hold my projects to a higher standard, staying connected to the deeper possibility a science class could have for impact on the world. 

As my time with Project Dragonfly comes to a close, my sense of purpose is stronger than ever. Carrying with me this understanding of thoughtful, intentional education’s possibilities, I am well-prepared to engage others in more deeply inhabiting the biomes we call home.


Berry, Wendell. (1996).  The unsettling of America: Culture & agriculture (3rd ed). Sierra Club Books.

Berry, Wendell. (1990). What are people for? North Point Press.

Chawla, L. (1999). Life paths into effective environmental action. The Journal of Environmental Education, 31:1. 15-26.

Chawla, L. (200)7. Childhood experiences associated with care for the natural world: A theoretical framework for empirical results. Children, Youth and Environments, 17(4), 144-170.

Getting Smart, & Teton Science Schools.( N.d). What is Place-Based Education and Why Does it Matter? Accessed 03 November 2020 at

Gray, P. (2015). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books. 

Hart, R.A. (1997). Children’s Participation. London, UK: Earthscan.

Hendrickson, K. (2012). Student resistance to schooling: Disconnections with education in rural Appalachia. The High School Journal, 95(4), 37-49.

Jones, E., & Nimmo, J. (1994). Emergent Curriculum. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Miller, J.R. (2005). Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience. TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution 20:8, 430-434.

Pauly, D. (1995). Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution, 10:10. 430-430.

Proshansky, H. M. (1978). The city and self-identity. Environment and Behavior 10(2):147-169.

Pyle, R.M. (1978). The extinction of experience. Horticulture 56, 64–67.

Sack, R. D. (1997). Homo geographicus: a framework for action, awareness, and moral concern. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sale, K. (1985). Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. Sierra Club Books.

Soga, M. and Gaston, K.J. (2018). Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences and implications. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 16:4. 222-230.

Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. Orion Society.

Ulrich, R.S. (1993). Biophilia, Biophobia, and Natural Landscapes. In S. Kellert and E.O. Wilson (eds), The biophilia hypothesis. Island Press.