Meet our newest faculty member, Al Stenstrup! We are thrilled to have Al on board for the 2013 Educator Academy. Al epitomizes what it means to be an experiential learner – embracing every day and every activity with endless energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity! When he is not out exploring the world, Al directs the development of Project Learning Tree’s curriculum materials and leads implementation of these materials across the country and internationally. In 2010, he received the award Outstanding Service to Environmental Education at the Global Level from the North American Association for Environmental Education for his work in 18 countries across the world. This year Al will be adding the Amazon to his list of international training sites! During the Academy, Al will use will use PLT’s Forests of the World module and Environmental Education Activity Guide as resources for helping our participants forge connections to the Amazon. We caught up with Al in between flights and asked him to share his take on place-based learning, Project Learning Tree (PLT), and his experience in the Amazon last summer.
It seems that place-based learning is all about forging connections. We all have different ways of forging connections to people and places. How do YOU connect with a new place? What things do you do that help you get a sense of things? Do you have “touchstones” that you seek out that help you make connections and gain perspective?
“Hmmmm…I’ve never really thought about that. Good question! When I think about all the places I’ve been around the world, the memories that are most vivid are those of the schools I’ve visited. I guess this would be my touchstone. I seek out opportunities to visit schools where ever I go. Schools give me a window into a community. These visits give me insights into a community’s history, its organization, its values…I guess this is my way of understanding and making connections to a place. Now you’ve got me thinking. I wonder what other people use as touchstones when visiting a new place.”
Do you think there is room for place-based learning in the new world of high stakes testing and the push for common core standards?
“Actually, you might be surprised to learn that the value of place-based learning is actually getting more, not less, attention these days. The latest draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) places a high value on connecting students to their local communities and environments and using this as a means to help the students make connections and deepen understanding. From my perspective, the biggest change coming from the NGSS is how science content is presented, not the content itself. Place–based learning ties in nicely to this fresh approach.”
Project Learning Tree (PLT) uses forests as a window for understanding larger environmental issues and aims to actively engage students in solving problems and making a difference. How do PLT activities help students move beyond factual awareness and into the realm of appreciation, wonder, and action?
“One of our goals at PLT is to help students learn HOW to think, not what to think. Certainly having factual background is important, but when you give students the chance to identify issues, look at other perspectives, conduct investigations, and find their own solutions – this is where the magic happens. Students feel empowered when their voices are heard and this leads to action. PLT strongly encourages students to propose solutions, but our ultimate goal is to have them take action. Teachers use PLT’s Forests of the World and our Environmental Education Activity Guide to help students gain perspective and propose solutions. Our GreenWorks and Green Schools take things to an even more active level and are great programs for actively engaging students in service-learning.”
You recently wrote a book about forests and included a chapter on the Amazon. Last summer you finally got to visit the Amazon in person. It was obvious that you were in a perpetual state of wonder. Did you gain any new perspectives?
“Well since I work for PLT, I am kind of a forest guy. You might be surprised to know that what struck me most was the water – the vastness, the flow – it was everywhere! We literally couldn’t take 50 steps without getting wet. Water drives everything, not only how the Amazon system works, but daily life for all the people that live there. The river is their highway. It’s their grocery. It’s interesting…I wrote a book about forests, and how they are a diminishing natural resource, so I went into the experience thinking about forests and trees and how they are being exploited. What I came away with was a new perspective on how the Amazon functions as a system – especially the connection between the forest and the water. I’m looking forward to getting back down there in July and expanding my perspective again. I just might need to write another book or at least a new chapter!”
Thanks for sharing Al! Can’t wait to join you in the Amazon next summer during the 2013 Educator Academy in the Amazon!