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STEM Learning in Your Own Backyard

Originally appears in the Winter 2016 issue

Our students are connected to a global feast of knowledge through daily consumption of social media, but know very little about local ecosystems or science processes happening in their own communities. The philosopher Comenius once said, “Knowledge of the nearest things should be acquired first, then that of those farther and farther off.”[i] How can we engage students in their local culture, help them understand the environment they live in, and make science relevant to their everyday lives? One approach to making science relevant and relatable for students is to provide opportunities for place-based education.

STEM Instead is one such educational opportunity that replaced a former, traditional summer school program for middle school students in Waimea, Hawaii Island, Hawaii. The former program included significant amounts of direct instruction with little student engagement so we named our program STEM Instead. We hoped this title would communicate the idea that the new program would be “instead” of what students had known previously in summer school and would be radically different. This program asked students to learn about their own environment and local culture to gain knowledge and understanding of those things closest to them and to then apply that knowledge to other contexts. In this article we describe the value of place-based summer programs and the STEM Instead program, and provide ideas for how you could design your own program.

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Brooke A. Whitworth is an Assistant Professor of Science Education in the Center for Science Teaching and Learning at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. Stephanie Beyea is a science teacher at Trinity Christian School in Prescott, Arizona. Melora Purell is the Coordinator of the Kohala Watershed Partnership in Waimea, Hawaii.

We would like to acknowledge Friends of the Future and the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant (with special thanks to Angela Thomas and Susan Maddox), The Kohala Center, Kohala Watershed Partnership, and Kahua Ranch. We’d also like to thank our other administrators, teachers, field educators, and teaching assistants in 2015: Patti Cook, Amy Kendziorski, Janice English-Somerville, Franny Kinslow Brewer, Seri Niimi-Burch, Erica Owens, Deann Nishimura Thornton, KaMele Sanchez, Zoe Somerville, and Sidney Vermeulen. Finally, we’d like to thank The Neilan Foundation, the Big Island Invasive Species Committee, and all of the summer staff at Waimea Middle School who supported STEM Instead.


[i] Sobel, D. (2004). Place-based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. Nature and Listening, 4.

[ii] Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative [PEEC]. (2010). The Benefits of Place-based Education: A Report from the Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative (Second Edition). Retrieved July 27, 2015 from

[iii] National Research Council [NRC]. (2012). A framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[iv] Roy, K. (2011). Safety in the Field. Science Scope34(7), 86-87.