Becky Vordermann- The Impact of the Place Network Principles on Student Engagement in the Community Impact Project Process in a Rural School

July 22, 2020 |

The Impact of the Place Network Principles on Student Engagement in the Community Impact Project Process in a Rural School

Written by Becky Vordermann
An Action Research Report for Rural Schools Collaborative Grants in Place Fellow Program

Place-based education is the use and formation of curriculum in one’s community (Edutopia, 2016). Place-based education helps students to create personal connections between their studies and their surroundings. Teton Science School’s Place Network can help educators facilitate place-based education, in their learning community. The place-based model focuses on creating local to global connections in learning, making learning learner-centered, using inquiry and design thinking in instruction, taking advantage of the community as a classroom, and providing interdisciplinary opportunities for students through project-based learning and other instruction (Teton Science Schools, 2020).

Place-based learning can be facilitated through numerous types of instructional activities. Community impact projects can allow teachers and students to engage in a great variety of place-based education activities and make an impact in their community. In rural schools, place-based education may better serve students and allow for real world connections to be made to one’s academics. Rural communities may struggle to develop personal connections to traditional curriculum found in textbooks (Azano, 2011; Muthersbaugh, Kern, & Charvoz, 2014; Pringle, Webb, Warner, & Peterson, 1972; Poole, Alvarez, Penagos, & Vasquez, 2013; Waller & Barrentine, 2015). When students are able to relate to their studies, engagement is impacted. When one’s community is used for the foundation for curriculum, with hands-on, direct experiences through integrated projects, student engagement has been shown to increase (Sampson, 2016). Instructional activities of a great variety have the potential to impact student engagement in all subject areas. This action research focuses on how specific types of place-based instructional activities, formed using the Place-Network’s six principles impact student engagement in the community impact project process, in a rural elementary school.

Review of the Literature

Commercial Curriculum in Rural Schools

Rural communities often include students of low-income families that do not relate easily to middle-class educators and commercial curriculum designed for students in urban communities (Hendrickson, 2012; Waller & Barrentine, 2015). Students living in rural areas may struggle to obtain an education that is equivalent to those living in urban areas (USDA, 2017). This is due to the struggling economies of an area. Female, white, and younger populations in rural areas are more likely to have higher education in rural communities (USDA, 2017). Despite these statistics, all individuals living in rural areas are at a disadvantage, due to the lack of empowerment and personal connection found in standard commercial curriculum. Students in rural communities have strong family values that may hinder their motivations of engaging in traditional curriculums that prepare them for college, instead of the vocational trades that support their local economy or the skills necessary to take over the family business (Hendrickson, 2012). These students’ lifestyles and values vary from those of students living in urban areas. In the past several years, these differences in values and lifestyles has created a gap between populations in rural and urban areas. This gap is noticeable in education, politics, and overall civic engagement (Goldfarb, 2018).

Curriculum in rural communities needs to be revised in order to teach students the skills necessary to build their local economies, take over family businesses, and enhance their everyday lives (Hendrickson, 2012; Poole et al., 2013). Students feel conflict when academic subjects are not relevant to them (Hendrickson, 2012). This leads to the notion that commercial curriculum designed for urban dwelling students, more likely to attend post-secondary school instead of going into vocational trades, is disempowering to rural students.

The disempowerment of commercial curriculum also applies at the elementary school level. Waller and Barrentine (2015) examined the place-based connections between a commercial reading curriculum utilized at the lower elementary school level, in a rural community. They found that there were limited connections between the rural community and the text included in the commercial reading curriculum. The curriculum in Waller and Barrentine’s (2015) study was disempowering to the readers it was utilized with, due to lack of personal connection to place. Howley, Howley, Camper, and Perko (2011) found that pedagogy that was culturally responsive based off aspects of place-based education was most representative of rural students. This study examines an alternative model for learning through place-based education that adapts and benefits student living in rural communities.

Place-Based Education in Rural Schools

Place-based education allows for students to connect to their community through educational experiences. Commercial curriculum is not easy for educators and students to connect to, especially in rural communities. If resources are sufficient, place-based education can thrive in rural school districts to meet the educational needs of students (Howley et al., 2011). The pedagogy of place-based education helps create an educational environment that integrates experience into learning, not just the memorization of standards (Gruenwald, 2003). Pringle et al. (1972) observed how inquiry-based learning, a component of place-based models including the TSS model, positively impacted students in rural schools. Pringle et al. (1972) observed increased motivation and the development of greater critical thinking and discussion skills among rural elementary school students in a gifted classroom, through the use of inquiry-based learning. This study examines a school in a rural region. Pedagogy from commercial curriculum is not often suited for this population, which is why the six principles of the Place Network model for instruction were implemented in the study.

Muthersbaugh et al. (2014) demonstrates how place-based education is often interdisciplinary in nature. Teton Science School’s Place Network model promotes interdisciplinary learning experiences for students (Teton Science School, 2020). Muthersbaugh et al. (2014) investigates how visual art and photographic images affect fourth-grade students understanding of environmental science experiences. Muthersbaugh et al. (2014) found that student misconceptions can aid educators in planning appropriate and useful experiences. Effective formative assessment can be planned based on student misconceptions. Based on this study, educators are encouraged to correct student misconceptions through place-based education. The research of Muthersbaugh et al. (2014) was used to guide planning of instructional activities and assessment, for the population in this study.

The values students express in work often can demonstrate the importance of place. Personal values of students shown in their artwork and journals align to the community and desires to have positive impacts on their environment (Muthersbaugh et al., 2014). Similarly, to Muthersbaugh et al. (2014), Howley et al. (2011) found that place-based education connected students to ecological dimensions of their community. Students were concerned about threats to their place at Island Community School (Howley, et al.). Place influences student work. Connections with place in curriculum can be empowering to students (Waller & Barrentine, 2014). Intentionally developing ways to keep the focus of instruction on the community, through interweaving curriculum with topics related to place, helps students to use personal experiences in forming new perspectives and understanding topics (Waller & Barrentine, 2015). The topics of focus for place-based learning and instruction required to complete the community impact project were highly focused on connecting students to local ecology.

Additionally, place-based education allows for students to give back to their community through projects. Students in Oshkosh, WI have used classes on community to design and implement projects that benefit their local community (Rydberg, 2017). By utilizing the community as a classroom, in locations such as Oshkosh, WI, Laramie, WI, and Venice Louisiana, educators have found an increase in student motivation (Getting Smart, eduInnovation, & Teton Science Schools, n.d.). Wilson and Stemp (2008) found that students in alternative education settings in Queensland, Australia that lacked motivation in regard to their education were greatly impacted, when they engaged in place-based education. Absences decreased and students expressed greater motivation and interest in their learning, when they began working on a place-based project impacting local wetlands. The literature demonstrates that place is important to students, which is why place-based education and community impact projects can greatly help students to better understand and relate to their studies.

Howley et al. (2011) suggest that support is necessary for successful implementation of place-based education in schools. The Island Community School had support from leadership and island summer residents, which made their place-based programs possible. Teachers and administrators that strive to promote opportunities for civic and economic engagement help support students in making place-based connections through their studies (Howley et al., 2011). Without support from administrators, teachers, parents, and community members place-based education cannot be implemented fully. Before beginning this study, the administrators, teachers, parents, and other community stakeholders had to be willing to adapt their instruction and resources to support the implantation of the six principles of place-based learning, as defined by the Place Network model.

Student Engagement through Place-Based Education

Engagement has been shown to increase in place-based learning, especially in place-based learning that takes place outside of the traditional classroom. Learning in nature has shown increased motivation and attention in students (Kuo, Barnes, & Jordan, 2019; Louv, 2015). When exploring topics through place-based learning students often engage in learning outside. Behaviors of increased attention and motivation that may be observed when looking for signs of engagement include, asking questions, responding to questions, listening instead of having side conversations, and showing alertness with their eyes and body language (Johnson, 2012). When observing students in small groups, engagement is shown through interactions with their peers that involve inquiry, explaining, and evaluating (Johnson, 2012).

Previous studies have examined specific lessons that students found engaging. Nadelson & Jordan (2012) asked high school students, which activities they found most memorable and the most positive experiences. Recall and attitude can demonstrate engagement. Place-based education in the form of orienteering was the most engaging activity for students based on this in Nadelson and Jordan’s (2012) study. Sobel (2008) discusses seven motifs to use when engaging students in place-based learning. They are constructing forts and special places, playing hunting and gathering games, shaping small worlds, developing friendships with animals, constructing adventures, descending into fantasies, and following paths and creating shortcuts. Goodland & Leonard (2018) found that activities with community partnership opportunities were engaging for students in place-based education. Moore-Hart, Liggit, and Daisey (2004) found that students demonstrated higher level thinking when journaling was paired with observations in outdoor learning, related to wetlands. The more students wrote and reflected, the greater their retention was of topics as they integrated key concepts into their observations. Place-based education is meaningful and can greatly impact students.


The research in this review supports the application of the Place Network model in rural schools to better engage students. The Place Network advocates for one’s community to be their classroom. In rural schools, this educational model may empower students, as the utilization of the community as a classroom can motivate student learning (Getting Smart et al., n.d.). Waller and Barrentine’s (2015) study demonstrates the community as a classroom, by discussing the selection of texts appropriate to their place, and deviating from commercial curriculum that may be more relatable for urban students. The use of community as classroom is also shown in Howley et al.’s (2011) study, where students are exposed to opportunities of economic and civic participation, in their lessons. The community impact project further allows students extensive opportunities of this type. The willingness to utilize one’s community as a classroom, is necessary for place-based education to occur at any level. When using the community as a classroom, the boundaries for classroom management may be less present. Wilson and Stemp (2008) utilized a wetland as their learning environment in the community. They show the clear use of community as the classroom, with less defined boundaries, in a wetland. It is essential educators plan instructional activities that positively effect engagement levels, in such settings.

The Place Network model encourages educators to engage students in interdisciplinary learning experiences. Howley et al. (2011), Waller and Barrentine (2015) and Muthersbaugh et al. (2014) each observed units and lessons that were interdisciplinary. Topics in literature can easily be related to other areas of study. Waller and Barrentine (2015) discuss how literature can be connected to rural life (social studies), baseball (physical education), and music and art topics. Muthersbaugh et al (2014) observes how literature, writing, art, and history can combine in place-based education. Students engaged in texts related to their studies, wrote in journals throughout the unit, they observed art, and created their own art, all while learning about the explorations of Lewis and Clark (Muthersbaugh, et al., 2014). Wilson and Stemp (2008) show how science and social studies can be combined, in the Wetlands Project. Pringle et al. (1972) demonstrates interdisciplinary learning in the gifted students class that has them utilize components of all areas of study to make a plan for survival, given a scenario and location. Howley et al. (2011) also demonstrates the use of interdisciplinary experiences when students are able to use their educational experiences to relate to ecology in the area, natural resources, economics, and civic topics. Students hoping to engage in materials preparing them to take over family businesses and support their local economies, may see greater value to place-based learning that is interdisciplinary. Most jobs require the use of knowledge that is interdisciplinary, whether it be carpentry or agricultural. The interdisciplinary nature of the Place Network model would benefit students that lack motivation. These studies allude that the interdisciplinary nature of place-based education allows for one unit or lesson to cover multiple standards, in different areas of curriculum and better prepare students for jobs in their own communities that they have personal connections to.

Willingness to adapt and form curriculum to engage students in place-based learning often varies. Some teachers are more willing to take additional time to plan for place-based experiences and deviate from commercial curriculums than others. This is often observed in schools in the Place Network. Waller and Barrentine (2015), Muthersbaugh et al. (2014), and Howley et al. (2011) support this viewpoint. Waller and Barrentine’s (2015) study showed teachers relied heavily on commercial curriculum, despite great knowledge of the local community. This may be due to the additional time needed to plan, with facilitating instruction to interweave with one’s place. Muthersbaugh et al. (2014) and Howley et al. (2011) both found the schools involved in their case studies were willing to facilitate place-based experiences for students. Howley et al. (2011) found that the Island Community School tied several instructional events at the school to the needs of the community. Place-based education allows rural schools to be responsive to their culture and community (Howley et al., 2011). Muthersbaugh et al (2014) does not discuss the curricular preferences of the school, but the unit carried out in the case study is adapted to relate to aspects of place-based education and leads students to make connections to their place in their studies. As the unit was over 4 weeks in length, it would be fair to assume that the school utilized in Muthersbaugh et al.’s (2014) study is willing to adapt their curriculum to make place-based connections. Rural schools do not often benefit from the implementation of commercial curriculums, as students can not relate to their content (Hendrickson, 2012; Waller & Ballentine, 2015). Educators that take the time to adapt and create curriculum following a place-based model, such as that of the Place Network model, are more likely to empower and motivate students to engage in learning. This is due to the direct effect place-based education has on the community. Teton Science School’s Place Network model advocates for the connection between one’s local community and the greater world (Teton Science School, 2020). When students are able to create these local to global connections, they me be more empowered to continue their education following secondary school and see relevance in post-secondary opportunities. Previously, Goodland and Leonard (2018), Moore-Hart et al., Nadelson and Jordan (2012), and Sobel (2008) identified instructional activities that were most engaging to students. The findings of their research can help educators looking to implement the place-based principles of the Place Network model, in their classroom.


This literature review offers great support for the research question, of how specific types of place-based instructional activities, formed using the Place Network’s six principles impact student engagement in the community impact project process, in a rural elementary school. The review first looks at place-based education implementation vs traditional brick and mortar curriculum in rural schools. Howley et al. (2011), Muthersbaugh et al. (2014), Pringle et al. (1972), Waller and Barrentine (2015), and Wilson and Stemp (2008) offer great insight on topics of place-based education that relate to the research question. In the past, commercial curriculum has disconnected students from their place (Hendrickson, 2012; Waller & Barrentine, 2015). Place-based education encourages rural schools to utilize their community as their classroom. It creates interdisciplinary learning experiences for students. The studies demonstrate that support from stakeholders and educator willingness to adapt instruction to connect to one’s place is essential for the implementation of place-based education, in a rural school.

Student engagement is a high priority of all educators. Goodland and Leonard (2018), Moore-Hart et al., Nadelson and Jordan (2012), and Sobel (2008) offer insight on designing place-based education instructional opportunities that promote learning and engage students. They show what type of activities were successful in the engagement of students in their own studies and teaching practice.

Demographic Data

This study took place in a lower elementary school multi-grade class, in rural Idaho. The study took place in the classroom and in the schoolyard. Additionally, the study was conducted at various local places, related to the community impact project. One of the primary local places this study took place at, was a national forest trailhead. The trailhead is fewer than 5 miles from the school. It contains a campground and parking for a trail that leads to remote hunting camps and mountain lakes. The majority of students had personal connections to the local places we incorporated into instruction for place-based learning. Many had hiked, hunted, or rode their horses in the forest from the trailhead, with their families and friends. The students used in this study were all members of a multi-grade level class with students in grades k-2. Ten of the eighteen students in the class participated in the study. One kindergartner, four first graders, and four second graders participated in the study. Appendix A contains the informed consent letter that was sent to each student’s parents to gain permission for each student to participate in the study. Appendix B contains the informed consent permission form. These documents are based off models of gaining informed consent provided by Efron and Ravid (2013).

The study was implemented from a participant observer position. I implemented much of the instruction. When I was not leading instruction, I helped manage the students, as another professional from the community led instruction. I reflected on student engagement in place-based activities based on observations I made, during instructional activities. These observational notes have been coded to form conclusions on student engagement.

Target Group

The participants in this study attend a school that is part of the TSS Place Network. The class received the Rural Schools Collaborative Grants in Place Fellow grant, to provide the funds necessary to complete this project. Rural Schools Collaborative is a group that provides teachers with resources to implement place-based learning in rural schools (Rural Schools Collaborative, 2015). The school in this study is part of the Northern Rockies Hub for Rural Schools Collaborative.

The k-2 class in this study also received a grant from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, to help fund the purchase of science tools and guidebooks, used to complete tasks in the process of taking on their community impact project. The students in the class chose to focus on the essential question, How might we create displays for visitors, to teach them about plants, animals, and other topics that relate to our local natural area, specifically Palisades Creek Trailhead, for their community impact project, during the 2019-2020 school year. This question helped to plan and facilitate instructional activities for the target group in the study, through the course of their community impact project.

Baseline Data

The baseline data that supports my action research focus is that place-based learning has been shown to impact students positively in regard to academic success, as they are given the opportunity to connect personally and take ownership of their work (Sobel, 2008; Teton Science Schools, 2020). It is important to recognize what instructional activities were successful in engaging students of specific demographics, that align to concepts of place-based learning, specifically the Place Network model principles. This report investigates which principles were implemented in instruction that were most engaging for k-2 students, in a rural community.

Data Collection and Analysis Methods

Qualitative data collection that was utilized in this case study, examining how specific types of place-based instructional activities, formed using the Place-Network’s six principles, have on student engagement in the community impact project process, in a rural elementary school. These data collection methods were created based on examples from Action Research in Education (2013). Descriptive and reflective field notes were taken during teacher facilitated place-based instruction and on field trips led by naturalists for the NPS and the local ski resort. These notes used thick descriptions to ensure the data and themes present are reliable. Student reflections, following specific lessons and activities were coded to identify what principles were associated with engagement.

Student reflections and work that was assigned throughout the community impact project was used to find themes in engagement of instructional activities. Students were also interviewed in group settings. These interviews gave greater insight into which of the six principals of the Place Network Model were most engaging, during instructional activities.

Due to COVAID-19 and the shift to remote learning, additional data was taken to reflect the engagement of students in place-based learning that took place from their homes. Students and their parents took a survey together reflecting on various assignments that were planned with the Place Network principles for place-based education, in place. These surveys were conducted online via and the results were analyzed to identify themes and patterns.


A number of patterns were present in the data. Students preferred activities that took place outside of the classroom to those that took place in the classroom. The trips to the trailhead, snow shoe field trips, the fish hatchery tour, and scavenger hunts were all instructional activities that students noted as favorites. These instructional activities primarily represent the Place Network principle of “community as classroom.” The observation notes that were taken during lessons where community served as the classroom also indicated student engagement. I noted two students that typically did not stay on task in class were actively engaged, and followed directions well in the outdoor learning setting at the trailhead. I also found one of the students, with a learning disability, that did not volunteer to answer questions often in our classroom, frequently raised his hand to participate in discussions and answer questions during field experiences at Palisades Creek and on field trips related to our community impact project.

The k-2 students struggled to complete writing tasks and many stated in their survey’s and interviews that they did not enjoy assignments with writing. They preferred assignments where they had options to build models or make videos to demonstrate their understanding. This demonstrates engagement of instructional activities integrating learner choice, which defines the Place Network principle of being learner centered. Engagement of students in other learner centered instructional activities was also found in lessons such as the “Adopt a tree” lesson. Students each had a choice of which tree to examine and observe for this lesson. Not every student chose the same type of tree. They chose one that stood out to them. The majority of students participating in this study showed on-task behavior through successful completion of their assignments at the trailhead, on days where they were given the opportunity to have choice in their lessons.

Design thinking and inquiry were often used together in instructional activities for the community impact project, for this study. Activities relating to these principles included in instruction were bird nests studies, studying human impacts on wildlife, going on scavenger hunts, creating scavenger hunts for other, and investigating landforms. Students stated they preferred these activities to writing assignments that related to the topics. The observation notes demonstrate this in the landform instructional activities. Students were on task in creating landforms with play dough. When students transitioned to the writing instruction and grammar instruction that aligned to their study of landforms, they needed several reminders to stay on task. Students showed excitement verbally and engagement with on task behavior during nest building, in the schoolyard. This level of engagement was not observed, when the students were asked watch videos and read texts on nests. The students showed greater engagement as they planned their nest construction. Students were keen to find out what was needed to hold their nests together as strongly as birds.

Students did not show strong engagement in the instructional activities that were interdisciplinary. The community impact project shaped the reading and writing instruction in the k-2 class. Students often complained and showed off task behaviors, such as talking to others and throwing items across the room, when they were asked to write or read texts in conjunction with their observations, model making, and other tasks. In the student surveys, interviews, and reflections this was noted by both students and parents. One parent stated in the survey, “My kids really enjoy the animal videos and learning about nature. The learning and discovery is fun for them. They usually are very excited to do those activities. But if they know they will have to write about it, they immediately lose interest.” Student responses also conveyed this dislike for the integration of writing into the community impact project’s instructional activities. One student stated, “I like to be outdoors…I don’t like the writing part.”

The data did not indicate more engagement or disengagement towards activities that were formed to align with the Place Network connection “local to global.” Some students showed greater engagement than others in activities such as observing eagles and falcons in other areas of the country or comparing and contrasting habitats found in other parts of the world to our own. The data was not sufficient enough to prove greater or lesser engagement of students with activities relating to this principle.


The findings of this study overall were consistent with previous studies that relate to place-based education. Students showed excellent engagement overall in the place-based learning setting. Students that previously lacked participation in the classroom, showed greater engagement outdoors. This shows increased motivation and involvement from students, which Kuo et al. (2019) and Louv (2015) also found in their research.

Students in this study showed engagement in relation to instructional activities related to the Place Network principles of design thinking and inquiry. Sobel (2008) discussed engagement among student in activities that involved constructing miniature worlds and forts, where design thinking was employed. Nadelson and Jordan (2012) also found inquiry through orienteering to be engaging to students. These conclusions from previous research align to my research in which, students found nest building, fort construction, and designing their displays to be very engaging.

I was surprised to find that students did not show great engagement in interdisciplinary work, that included writing. Moore-Hart et al. (2004) greatly discussed how interdisciplinary learning is a more effective use of time, motivates students, and can eliminate barriers between subject areas for students. I felt the integration of writing was a barrier for student work and did not engage the students more in their writing. This lack of engagement does have the potential to be addressed in this group by structuring the presentation of writing in conjunction with other tasks in a different way. Pattnaik (2004) found that when students had to complete interdisciplinary tasks, some of which involved writing, they were greatly engaged if those activities were related to advocacy of animals. If writing tasks had a greater impact on the community both locally, regionally, and globally I wonder if students may be more engaged. If instead of asking students to write informative texts they were asked to create writing to advocate for protection and responsible use of forests or other local areas of advocacy, they may be more engaged. Students could do this by creating brochures, writing songs and poems for others, or by writing letters to leaders. The impact of advocacy related writing tasks on student engagement could be studied in future action research with students engaging in place-based learning, at the early elementary school level in a rural school.


There are obvious limitations to this study. The sample size of participants was very small in this study. The results may be different if these observations were made in several classes or with a larger class. The sample was not very diverse. The sample population was over eighty percent Caucasian. The student all were in grades k-2, which limits the findings. The Place Network principles for place-based education that students displayed greatest engagement in may be different in a population with students of different races or different ages, even within elementary school populations.

This study was also conducted in the form of participant observation. Participant observations can be limited due to bias, due to familiarity with the group. Participant observation is also limited as it is hard to replicate and therefore not always viewed as reliable (LG, 2020).


Overall, the action research discussed in this paper demonstrates that place-based education is engaging to students in grades k-2 in a rural setting. Engagement was demonstrated in instructional activities that aligned to four of the six principles of the Place Network model. Students demonstrated engagement in activities that utilized inquiry, design thinking, learner choice, and where community was the classroom. The students in k-2 struggled to engage in interdisciplinary instruction that asked them to use writing skills with science and social studies tasks. Alternative writing assignments that promote advocacy in topics related to the community may better engage students in interdisciplinary place-based learning, that includes writing. This may be looked at in future action research. There was not strong evidence for or against activities that incorporated the principle of local to global relationships.

The study is limited as only ten students participated in the study. The results are also limited as population demographics of the participants was not very diverse. This study could be conducted in a more diverse and larger population, in order to confirm or disprove the findings of the data in this study.


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Appendix A

Consent Letter

Appendix B

Informed Consent Form

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