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Technology, PBL, and Place-Based Education

Hannah Orcutt

Kindergarten Teacher and Administrator
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Five children bundled up in a forest identifying rocks
TVCS 3rd and 4th grade students research fossils and rock types at Grand Targhee Resort, information that they included in their GPS Tour of Teton Valley.

Teton Valley Community School (TVCS), a pre-K through sixth grade school in Victor, Idaho, has embraced project- and place-based education since its inception 13 years ago. Our valley and its people are fundamental parts in our curriculum-integrated projects. This hands-on learning prepares students for 21st century citizenship, teaching skills like communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. However, we sometimes struggle to add technology into the equation. We recognize that in this fast-paced world, students must be educated in the latest technology, but how can we do this without losing their connection to place and their appreciation for the natural world?

Last year, two classes at TVCS found a way to combine place-based projects with cutting-edge technology, proving that the two are not mutually exclusive.

The Spark: Cool GPS Technology

On an early September field trip in 2013, TVCS third through sixth grade students spent the day exploring Grand Teton National Park with a GPS device that sits on the dashboard and talks about the passing landscape. For children growing up surrounded by ecological thinking and spectacular landscapes, this field trip could have been mundane, but the GPS unit brought the experience to life. What a cool way to learn about nature! On the way home, the buzz from the students was, "We need a guide like this for Teton Valley!"

Teachers at TVCS use student-driven questions to build projects, keeping students engaged while teachers facilitate the process. Many projects have a driving question that strives to fulfill a community need, as stewardship and service learning are integral to our mission. For this project, students aimed for an end result that would impact our community and beyond:

How can we, as historians and geologists, use technology to teach visitors about our valley?

During the planning phase, it became clear that both place-based research and technological know-how would be instrumental to completing this project.

The Research: Mining Our Community

To teach visitors about our valley, first the students would need to become experts themselves. This was a challenge because Teton Valley is not small! How would the students decide what to include in their technological tour? They went out into the valley to explore favorite spots and figure out what visitors might be most excited about learning. Thinking critically and sharing special locations with each other instilled a sense of pride. They analyzed all aspects of our valley, and landed upon two topics that make Teton Valley unique: our history and the underlying geology.

After deciding on these focus areas, the classes had to determine how they would gather this knowledge. Traditionally at TVCS, projects take advantage of the people, resources, and landscape around us. With teacher guidance, students identified community experts such as geologists and historians, and local museums like the Museum of the Mountain Man and the Teton Valley Museum to do their research. After numerous meetings and visits, extensive note taking, and writing and revising, the students were finally able to share their knowledge and recorded "stories" tied to different places all over the valley.

The Partnership: Local Mobile App Company

Screen grab of the TravelStorys Tour app

The students wanted to use technology to share their stories so that visitors would be just as excited to learn as they had been during their initial field trip with the GPS device. During the research phase, students marked their teaching locations throughout the valley with GPS points. Using Google Earth, they learned how to connect these points with their recorded audio and the photographs they took and located online. They now had a comprehensive "tour." However, the final goal of sharing this research with the public had yet to be realized.

After some research, the teachers discovered TravelStorysGPS™, an organization based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming that partners with locals to create mobile app "tours." TravelStorysGPS agreed to publish our student-written tour! Now, people from all over the world can download and listen to the stories written and recorded by TVCS third through sixth grade students.

The Product: Teton Valley Student Tour

When students saw the app for the first time, their faces brimmed with pride and excitement. Their product and their learning came to life when they realized that people everywhere could listen to the stories they told about their home. This project also forged a pioneering relationship between TVCS and TravelStorysGPS. We are now working together to create a curriculum and share our project with other schools who may be interested in a similar endeavor.

TravelStorysGPS founder and CEO, Story Clark, spoke highly of the final product and the partnership between the organizations:

I have always wanted to involve students in [our] story development because of their enthusiasm for mobile technology and its great potential for education. [Teton Valley Community School]… found my platform and incorporated its architecture into their place-based curriculum.

During this project, we learned that it's possible to use cutting-edge technology in the classroom while maintaining a close relationship to place and the natural world. We'd love to hear how other schools are integrating technology and place in their classrooms!

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Hannah Orcutt's picture
Hannah Orcutt
Kindergarten Teacher and Administrator

I'm so glad you use the Student Tour at your house Madi, it really is a great way to learn about the valley and probably exciting for your 4-year-old to hear other children explain it.

We were thrilled to have the chance to partner with an organization with such great, user-(and child!)-friendly technology. Thanks for you kind words and thanks also for sharing the link to the tour!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Hannah! I do a lot of work around Place Based Ed (David Sobel works down the hall from me, so it'a huge part of what we do at AUNE). I love the way you've described your work here. Thanks for sharing. What are your favorite resources for folks who want to get started with this work?

Hannah Orcutt's picture
Hannah Orcutt
Kindergarten Teacher and Administrator

Hi Laura,

TravelStorysGPS has tours all over the U.S. and on all different subject matters, and is a free app to download, so I think that would be a great place to start. You can also listen to their tours even if you aren't in the geographical location, so any one of their tours could be a good jumping off point to spark a project like this.

We've also worked with TravelStorysGPS to create a curriculum that schools can use to create their own student tour. In this curriculum we have a lot of Project-Based Learning resources like calendars and templates from the Buck Institute (http://bie.org/), which we use at TVCS to plan all of our projects. There are also several books we use to help plan projects, some favorites include: "Why are School Buses Always Yellow? Teaching for Inquiry PreK-5" by John Barell, and "PBL 101 Workbook" by Alfred Solis, John Larmer and Gina Olabuenaga.

In general, I think the best resource for this type of project is the students themselves. Using their zeal for technology and their interest in one or two topics of study, creating a student tour will be an exciting extension of classroom learning.

Thanks for your comments Laura!

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

I love this story! What a great way for students to see (and hear) their work published for authentic audiences! And it's so much more significant since it is tied to their very own community. Thanks for sharing this great project, Hannah!

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Hannah,
Thank you so much for sharing such an inspiring story. I've long been an advocate for place-based education, and I think your story communicates why it is so important. I just wanted to ask you a question about your success: I imagine some of the teachers involved in this project might have been operating well outside of their experience, dealing with product development and apps and so on - how did you deal with those issues in such a way as to enable them to continue in their role as teachers, but in a different way to that which they had been before?

Jrea's picture


As a high school teacher, that is what I needed to hear! We have been discussing it at my school for 2+ school years and no one has really taken and run with it. We also integrated a 1:1 iPad initiative and are in our 2nd school year of that; this also seems to have faded some. It was great to come across this and get reenergized!

Hannah Orcutt's picture
Hannah Orcutt
Kindergarten Teacher and Administrator

Laura and Jrea,

Thank you for your kind comments! The authenticity of this project was huge, and really brought out a sense of hometown-pride, both of which kept students invested throughout. I'm so glad you both enjoyed hearing about this project.


That was originally a big road block! When we started this project, teachers were not sure how we were going to share the information. The students wanted to make an app but no one at the school knew much about app creation. We did have a teacher well versed in Google Earth, so this is what we originally used, before we found out about TravelStorysGPS. Google Earth is great because it's very intuitive and easy to use - teachers can play around on it for a while on their own and figure out pretty easily how to tie stories and photos to GPS locations. Students were actually able to do this part on their own.

Students were happy with this solution but when we found TravelStoriesGPS, we were excited because an app was really what students wanted. Working with TravelStorysGPS was wonderful because we provided all of the photos, text, recordings and GPS locations and their app developers created it for us. Finding a partner like this allows teachers to work within their areas of expertise (writing, editing, recording stories, photography), build upon this with an easy platform (Google Earth) which taught both teachers and students about marking GPS coordinates, and then the experts can put it all together.

It's definitely a challenge, and technology like this can definitely be scary to jump into without much knowledge. It took a leap of faith and some extra time outside the classroom for teachers to make this project work!


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