Increasing student engagement through place-based education: The Flint Hills Maps & Education program

Guest Post: This month we have a guest post from Anne Wilson, Map Program Coordinator for the Flint Hills Map and Education Program.


As teachers, we often hear students lament:  “What does this have to do with me?”  We know if our kids believe an idea actually affects them, it all of a sudden really matters.  However, actually relating learning to students’ own lives and local environment takes time and background knowledge we don’t always have.

Now a grass-roots team of teachers in the Flint Hills region has developed a new “place-based education” program – designed to connect learning to students’ own heritage, culture, landscapes, ecology, economy, and experiences as a foundation for the study of core subjects.

How important is place?  Bio-regionalist author Wendell Berry writes, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Many of our students think they’re from nowhere.  They are connected to everywhere but where they are.  This program gives them the gift of pride, understanding and commitment to their place.

The bonus is:  it will help them learn!  Data confirms place-based education both increases student engagement and boosts academic achievement – see http://www.promiseofplace.org/Research.

The Flint Hills Map & Education Program is two-fold, but it all starts with a unique map & educational exhibit now permanently displayed in the commons areas of over 183 schools and colleges in Kansas and Oklahoma.   (The three map exhibits are available to all in pdf format at http://www.flinthillsdiscovery.org/375/PDFs-of-Map-Exhibit.)

In addition to customary geographical elements, the maps define the Flint Hills region and feature in deep green the “Remaining Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie” – the last 4% of the once-largest continuous eco-system in North America.

Attached to each map is a colorful illustrated side-panel in three levels – elementary, middle and high school, focusing on scientific, historic, cultural, and economic issues in the region.

A custom-placed “You Are Here” arrow on each map points to the school’s location, emphasizing to students:  this is your place in the world.

You Are Here arrow

Secondly, the program provides an extensive array of informational and teaching resources on its website at www.flinthillsdiscovery.org/map, sponsored by the nationally-recognized Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan.

The Information Resources section includes annotated links to over 250 recommended web resources at https://ks-flinthillsdiscoverycenter.civicplus.com/261/Web-Resources.  Of special interest to Social Studies teachers are the Web Resource sections on “Geography & Maps, History, Culture, Community, & Economy” and “Outdoor Recreation, Travel & Tourism.”  Bibliographies of Print Resources and extensive Quotations relating are included as well.

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The Teaching Resources section provides hundreds of activities for pre-K to college.  First, the Lesson Plans section has specified grade-level activities in standard lesson format.   Some are links to other organizations’ lessons relevant to the region, but many are originally-created for the Flint Hills Map and Education program.

For example, the Flint Hills Map Exhibit Unit (at https://ks-flinthillsdiscoverycenter.civicplus.com/403/Flint-Hills-Map-Exhibit-Unit) focuses on local geography (adaptable to other regions), with a “Guided Tour” of the Flint Hills Map – scavenger hunt-type questions interpreting key/legend definitions:

  • locating eco- and physiographic boundaries
  • identifying multiple political boundaries including Native American reservations
  • comparing communities & population centers
  • analyzing transportation infrastructure

Additional unit lessons go even deeper, exploring regional geography with a special focus on exploring water resources and communities.

Next, the Teaching Resources’ Project-Based Learning section is divided into 12 subject areas.  The main Social Studies section is at:  https://ks-flinthillsdiscoverycenter.civicplus.com/306/Social-Studies.  However, nearly all projects are interdisciplinary, so many other subject areas also include Social Studies under “Related Areas.”

These Social Studies projects encourage students to become involved in their local communities through research and participatory projects – to increase civic engagement and build practical understanding of political, social and economic structures.

Each project includes a Topic & Objective, Critical Questions, Student Activity, Starter Resources, and Curriculum Standards (link at top of page).

Place-Based Education and Our Future:

Conservationist Baba Dioum wrote:  “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”  We as teachers have a critical role in building our youth’s future commitment to conservation of unique natural and cultural resources.

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Finally, whether we teach in the Flint Hills or not, we can join with the 183 schools of the Flint Hills Map & Education Program by motivating and engaging our students through place-based education:

  • Giving our students deeper pride, understanding, and awareness of their special place in the world
  • Creating vibrant school-community partnerships
  • Helping youth discover economic opportunities to stay and make their lives in their local region
  • Building commitment to conservation

Dynamic & Growing:  A team of teachers are working on keeping this website up-to-date and serving the needs of educators, adding activities and resources all the time.  Please let us know if you have any suggestions.

About Kori Green

I teach 8th grade social studies at El Dorado Middle School in El Dorado, KS. I enjoy U.S. history, dabble in British history, and love incorporating technology in the classroom.

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