Place-Based Learning

Photos: A Look Inside the Grand Rapids Museum School

A struggling district expands the concept of the school campus—using a museum, a zoo, and the city to teach its students.

June 8, 2017

In 2015, an innovative middle school opened inside the Grand Rapids Public Museum, a cultural site that dates back to 1854. An experiment in place-based education, the Museum School recently won a coveted XQ Super Schools award and is driving widespread adoption of its model across the district—bringing families and students back to a city in an economic and cultural downturn.

©Grand Rapids Public Museum
At the Grand Rapids Public Museum School, students use the museum’s exhibits—and the city of Grand Rapids—as their campus.
©Grand Rapids Public Schools
Students gather in the entrance under a fin whale skeleton, which the museum acquired in 1905. The growing school currently houses 120 sixth- and seventh-grade students.
©XQ Institute
Students and staff celebrated earlier this year when the Museum School was recognized as a winner in the XQ competition, which will provide $10 million to support their new museum high school.
©Grand Rapids Public Museum
The “Creatures of Light” exhibit uses interactive displays to help students understand bioluminescence. The school employs a curriculum integration specialist who helps museum staff and teachers incorporate exhibits into classroom lessons.
©Grand Rapids Public Schools
On a tour of the archives, museum educators explain the history and importance behind the Edison phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison.
©Grand Rapids Public Museum
A recent exhibit on biomechanics called “The Robot Zoo” featured eight robot animals—like this platypus—that illustrate real-life characteristics of the creatures.
©Grand Rapids Public Schools
Students sit inside the “Newcomers” exhibit, where they can follow in the footsteps of immigrants to Western Michigan, like French fur traders and present-day refugees from war-torn countries.
©Grand Rapids Public Museum
A replica of a historic Grand Rapids storefront in the “Newcomers” exhibit helps students understand the typical jobs and wages of three different immigrant groups who have settled in the area.
©Grand Rapids Public Schools
Hands-on learning occurs throughout the city for Museum School students. At Grand Valley State University, students take an underwater robotics class.
©Grand Rapids Public Schools
Museum School students look out from a museum balcony over the Grand River, where they learn about freshwater ecosystems and partake in river restoration work.
©Grand Rapids Public Schools
The museum’s resident scientist, Dr. Stephanie Ogren, shows students how to weigh native lake sturgeon. The endangered fish lives in the river right outside the museum’s doors.
©Grand Rapids Public Museum
The museum’s “Western Michigan Habitats” exhibit reinforces the school’s place-based learning philosophy—displaying common ecosystems found in the region, such as the marshland pictured here.
©Grand Rapids Public Schools
Instead of a gym, PE happens at downtown facilities like an ice-skating rink and the YMCA.
©Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD). Photograph by Jeen Na.
Students traveled to the Kendall College of Art and Design, part of the school’s network of partners, to work on a design-thinking challenge.
©Grand Rapids Public Schools
Students seem to realize how unusual the school is—here’s one of their responses to the question “What would you learn?”
©Grand Rapids Public Schools
The Zoo School, located in the John Ball Zoological Garden, is another of the district’s 15 theme and partnership schools. The school is ranked in the top 5 percent in the state and has been named one of the top 25 “Coolest Schools in America” by “Parent and Child” magazine.
Place-Based Learning

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