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methods & strategies

Putting Problem-based Learning in Its Place

Investigating local watersheds through problem-based learning and place-based education

Science and Children—July/August 2022 (Volume 59, Issue 6)

By Erica R. Hamilton, Kimberly Pawelka, Terrie Morrow, and Lisa Marckini-Polk

Problem-based learning is used to deepen students’ understanding of science through inquiry rooted in real-world problems and issues (Hmelo-Silver 2004). Place-based education grounds teaching and learning in what is local—lands and waters, people, history, and culture—to increase relevance and to facilitate and contextualize exploration of real-world problems and issues. To illustrate the power of problem-based learning combined with place-based education, we describe how third-grade teacher Terrie Morrow utilized both to support and extend students’ thinking and learning. We also share methods and strategies for teachers who want to implement problem-based learning and place-based education in their own settings as they support students’ environmental stewardship and ecological citizenship.

Terrie has been an active participant in Groundswell, a place-based education effort that is part of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (GLSI). Groundswell is a grant-funded program managed and facilitated by staff at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and provides grants of up to $1,000 to help local teachers and schools develop K–12 students into lifelong environmental stewards. Approximately 100–115 teachers in 25–30 schools engage in the Groundswell program annually. Coordinated by the Groundswell staff, teachers also have opportunities to participate in ongoing, purposeful professional development throughout the year facilitated by area experts. Some topics include place-based education, nonpoint source pollution, writing about the environment, and watershed management. These professional development opportunities and funds are used by teachers to design and implement student-led, community-based stewardship projects. To support these projects, Groundswell also connects teachers with local partners who provide access, expertise, resources, and support.

Terrie used her knowledge of storm water run-off and collaboration with local partners to challenge her students at Dutton Elementary to address local watershed issues. Implementing the following steps, teachers like Terrie can use problem-based learning and place-based education to extend student learning and positively impact their local communities.

Step 1: Identify a Local Problem

As an experienced elementary teacher who had worked with Groundswell for five years by the time she started this project, Terrie was familiar with watershed issues related to stormwater runoff. She observed water run-off from the school roof and parking lot, which created a soggy spot in the lawn outside her classroom. She and her students toured their school yard, made observations, and identified the soggy area on their school’s grounds as something that needed to be fixed.

Although Terrie was able to draw on her own knowledge and experiences as a participating Groundswell teacher to identify a watershed issue in her own school yard, teachers can also begin by taking inventory of local problems and issues though a guided outdoor or virtual tour of the neighborhood or community (using a tool such as Google Earth). During this tour, students look for and identify problems and challenges that affect them. For example, another GLSI teacher designed a problem-based learning and place-based education experience around piles of abandoned tires near their school yard after students expressed concerns about them on a walking tour of their neighborhood.

Yet another strategy for identifying a problem is for teachers and students to reach out to area parks and recreation agencies, water quality groups, or similar nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and local businesses. Students can use email, phone calls, virtual conferences, or teacher-facilitated communication to meet and interact with these professionals, and through these conversations, generate and organize a list of local school, neighborhood, or community problems they may be able to address. Professionals and organizations can also be invited into classrooms to present specific, local issues for the students’ consideration.

Having identified their problem, Terrie’s students next worked together to capture what they knew about watersheds and water runoff. Many students initially wrote ideas such as, “a watershed is a shed with water in it.” This allowed Terrie access to her students’ thinking and background knowledge as they began their long-term effort.

Step 2: Examine the Problem and Develop a Solution through Inquiry

While Terrie’s students had discovered a suitable, nearby problem on their school’s grounds, she wanted to ensure students understood how that problem ties into a bigger system, so they explored water issues in their neighborhood, community, and watershed. To support understanding at the watershed scale, Terrie invited a representative from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to come and share more about clean water stewardship. Working with this community partner, students explored how water flows through watersheds using a premade enviroscape, a portable, hands-on model used to illustrate these concepts (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1 Enviroscape demonstration model.

Enviroscape demonstration model.

Based on what they learned from the DEQ, students then worked in pre-assigned small groups to create, test out, and then adjust student-created enviroscapes using inexpensive supplies such as cardboard, aluminum foil, Legos, baking sprinkles, and spray water bottles (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2 Student-created model.

Student-created model.

Observing and generating data based on findings from their enviroscapes, students came to understand that planting more trees and native plants and changing the landscape can help to absorb stormwater run-off, and thereby prevent the undesired consequences of unmanaged runoff. Students learned about, and decided to install, a rain garden, and drew on their mathematical understanding of perimeter and area to calculate the total area of the rain garden for their school yard (Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3 Rain garden plan.

Rain garden plan.

Terrie included lessons on local native plants to help students identify which plants to include in their rain garden to capture the stormwater runoff. Students assessed how many plants were needed, what they would cost, and where each native plant should be located in the garden.

The long-term, integrated effort allowed Terrie to meet state and national standards in science, mathematics, and English language arts. Problem-based, place-based approaches connect well with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), with particular emphasis on the science and engineering practices (developing and using models to describe phenomena, planning and conducting investigations, and constructing explanations and designing solutions). Some specific NGSS performance expectations addressed in the project include engineering design (3-5-ETS1-2) and human activities to protect the environment (5-ESS3-1).

In connection to Common Core standards, students used their skills in measurement and data analysis (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.5.MD.A.1 and CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.5.MD.B.2) to determine the square footage of their rain garden. They also engaged in multiple literacy practices, including persuasive writing (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.1), creative writing (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.3), informational reading (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.R1.5.4 and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.R1.5.7). To integrate multiple writing skills, Terrie utilized individual student journals. To support students’ skills of observation about their playground and its ecosystem, they wrote about their experiences as an imaginary small insect. Using this type of formative writing assessment allows students opportunities to learn about the genre, audience, and purpose (i.e., “GAP”) for the types of writing they complete. Depending on the “GAP” for journal responses, teachers may also choose to engage their students in re-writing, revising, peer editing, and publishing/sharing selected journal entries. For journal responses, Terrie most often assessed students based on their reasonable best effort. When a journal entry is taken through a formal writing process, consider drawing on rubrics best aligned with the “GAP” of the entry. Terrie partnered with a literacy coach and teacher in her district to assess her students’ writing. Using this colleague’s rubric, Terrie assessed students’ formal writing about rain gardens and their importance for local watersheds.

Step 3: Collaborate with Community Partners

When problem-based learning is combined with place-based education, students have opportunities to work with local professionals in their community who can help them see how their actions and choices impact their local watershed. To support students’ problem-based learning and place-based education about watersheds, Terrie and her students partnered with Plaster Creek Stewards, a collaboration between a local university (i.e., Calvin University) and community members aimed at restoring the health of the Grand River watershed. Plaster Creek Stewards offered Terrie and her students valuable expertise in the field and helped students develop their rain garden.

As part of their collaboration with Plaster Creek Stewards, students went on field trips to nearby Plaster Creek, one of the most polluted bodies of water in the Grand River watershed, and to a local park (through which Plaster Creek runs). During these trips, students analyzed water quality by collecting macroinvertebrates to determine stream health. As part of an onsite exploration of their local watershed with community partners, students can express new thinking and insights through journals, quick writes, and thinking maps. For example, using chalk and the parking lot at the park, Terrie’s students—with support from Plaster Creek Stewards’ partners—worked in pre-assigned small groups to generate illustrated watershed thinking maps.

Step 4: Communicate with an Authentic Audience

Authentic audiences exist in all communities. They should be part of problem-based learning and place-based education because authentic audiences heighten the value students take from education and their investment in their learning. Pittman (2016) notes, “sharing products and performances with the public creates a purpose for top-quality work” (p. 47). As part of the Groundswell program, Terrie’s students publicly presented their work at a year-end community Student Showcase. This is an event open to the public and highlights all the Groundswell student projects in the region. Terrie’s students created a two-minute video of their project, which was shown at a local movie theatre in front of 400 viewers. After the viewing, attendees visited an exhibit where they asked participating students questions about their projects and experiences.


Although the Groundswell program is not available to teachers outside West Michigan, teachers may choose to seek out funding and/or materials support from local businesses, not-for-profit organizations, small grant programs targeting teachers, as well as state-based science associations. Additionally, combining problem-based learning and place-based education can happen within a single grade level or across grade levels. In Terrie’s case, she worked closely with her students to identify and solve a local problem. Other Groundswell teachers have done similar projects in their schools but across grade levels. In these instances, teachers collaboratively followed the steps outlined above but then assigned various tasks and learning outcomes to different grade levels. When engaging in place-based education and problem-based learning across grade levels it is important for teachers to plan ahead, collaborate, and communicate with one another. Both approaches invite collaboration, inquiry, and investment in local places.

According to research, K–12 students have better long-term retention and increased ability to apply new material if an instructional method actively engages them and provides opportunities to put their learning and ideas into action (Wirkala and Kuhn 2011). Utilizing problem-based learning and place-based education to study local problems increases students’ engagement and learning and connects them to their community. As Demarest (2015) explains, using local investigations to support problem-based learning allows student’s learning to “go where the place leads” (p. 71) and encourages students to solve problems in their communities. This approach enables students to meet multiple standards and further develop their 21st-century skills as they and their teachers make lasting impacts in their community through environmental stewardship and ecological citizenship.

Erica R. Hamilton ( is an associate professor in the College of Education and Community Innovation at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Kimberly Pawelka is the former Groundswell manager and currently serves as the certification officer for Grand Valley State University’s College of Education and Community Innovation. Terrie Morrow is a retired Caledonia Community Schools’ educator, located in Caledonia, Michigan. Lisa Marckini-Polk is a program evaluator and owner of Civic Research Services, Inc. in Milford, Michigan.


Demarest, A.B. 2015. Place-based curriculum design: Exceeding standards through local investigations. New York: Routledge.

Hmelo-Silver, C.E. 2004. Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review 16 (3): 235–266.

Pittman, J. 2016. Celebrating science with the community: An approach to science fairs intended to create learning celebrations. Science and Children 54 (1): 46–51.

van Uum, M.S.J., R.P Verhoeff, and M. Peeters. 2016. Inquiry-based science education: Towards a pedagogical framework for primary school teachers. International Journal of Science Education 38 (3): 450–469.doi: 10.1080/09500693.2016.1147660

Wirkala, C., and D. Kuhn. 2011. Problem-based learning in K–12 education. American Educational Research Journal 48 (5): 1157–1186.

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