What does it mean for an education program to be “place-based?” In its simplest terms, it means that the learning opportunities are designed based on
- what can be learned right here
- what can be learned right now
- what can be accomplished with the people we are working with
Throughout the design and pilot year of the Burlington City & Lake Semester, we have kept this framework at the forefront, and the result has been a program that both embodies and invests in our small city. If we’ve done our job, the educational model could be replicated in another place, but the specific curriculum could not.
It’s important that BCL be place-based. However, it is also true that there has never been a time in human history when we have been more interconnected with people, issues, and forces beyond our borders. Problems today are interdependent, complex, and global. Because of this, even place-based education is enriched by having a wider perspective. After all, our most urgent challenges could care less about political or national boundaries, and addressing them will require a new level of global citizenship.
This semester’s broad perspective began on our first day in the city, when we hosted UVM Anthropology Professor, Luis Vivanco. As described in a blog post from January, he told the remarkable story of Antanas Mockus, the Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. From the very first day, BCL students were invited to think outside the box, both geographically and culturally.
Luis’ presentation was very valuable to me, and gave me a non-western perspective on government. So did studying Curatiba, Brazil, a city that showed me how a tiny budget can still have big impacts. Overall, it is important to make these global connections, because our goal should be to find the ways that other people in other places solve their own problems, and to see if we can use similar tactics to solve ours.
When these connections are made on a global scale, it makes it easier for me personally to learn more about Burlington and why things actually happen in our own city’s systems.
During our study of Burlington’s city systems, we took several curricular side trips to international locations where similar issues were being addressed differently. First, we explored transportation planning in Medellín, Colombia, whose outdoor escalators and gondolas connect its high-elevation favelas with the city center.
By learning about the world it helps me understand more about the patterns followed by communities and the similarities between different places and systems.
These global connections have been very current and relevant unlike what I get from history classes and even some social studies courses that zoom out to much.
Students earning Honors in Social Studies also held a book club with UVM Transportation Center Vermont Clean Cities Coordinator and Latin American Studies scholar, Peggy O’Neil. The session focused on the fascinating story of Curitiba, Brazil, a city that has defied the odds and become a global leader in sustainable development. Over a hefty plate of pastries, our group discussed this city’s story, its successes, and its challenges. Reflecting on the encounter, Sam wrote “That was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done in school. It didn’t even feel like school. We were in a cafe, having a real conversation with an expert who listened to our ideas. Everyone was super engaged.”
Later in the semester, during our study of the metrics used to measure whether a community is thriving, we hosted Jen Cirillo, from Shelburne Farms. Over the past few years, Jen has been a key player in the development of the Greater Burlington Sustainability Education Network [GBSEN]. This group has established Burlington as a “Regional Center of Expertise for Education for Sustainability” [RCE], as recognized by United Nations University. The organizing framework that connects the 170+ RCE cities around the globe is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. These 17 goals are universal, and they guide the entire planet towards a sustainable planet.
Among many other projects, the Greater Burlington Sustainability Education Network is currently collaborating with a group of educators and community development professionals in Puerto Rico, and supporting their application for RCE status. In March, when a group of Puerto Rican teachers and students came to Burlington to participate in a citizen science conference, Burlington City & Lake Semester jumped at the opportunity to connect with them.
I have enjoyed making these global connections because it has allowed me to think of these issues on a global scale. It is easy to think of just Burlington or just Vermont or just America but when you are looking at similar issues or situations in other countries or states or cities it makes the issues seem more important and relatable. It it also good to know that there are other people across the world working on similar issues and working on solutions
Burlington is simply a piece of a the world. In order to study how Burlington works, we need to study how the world works and how Burlington fits into that. Additionally, we can see pieces of Burlington mirrored elsewhere, that we can use to make decisions on what works well for a place like Burlington and what doesn’t. Every place in the world has different strengths and weaknesses. In this modern age, with technology that connects us in seconds and allows us to travel across the globe in a day, we can learn so much about what works and what doesn’t. There’s also strength in being able to access the different ideas, etc, that comes with diversity.
After having analyzed and applied the SDGs in a variety of settings, BCL students brought their new perspective to four different Burlington elementary and middle schools. In small groups, BCL students facilitated a series of activities that helped younger learners understand how the U.N. approaches sustainable development, and how it connects to their lives.
Another global connection took the form of a live video conversation with Susanne Sayers, Editor of the recently published book, 2030Now. The book is a beautiful, inspiring call to arms for the historic opportunity to invest in the SDGs. The conversation ranged widely, from international politics, to the role of journalists in the information age, to the challenge of balancing hope and fear.
One insightful thing I took from the conversation was what she said about Optimism vs Realism– and how if people aren’t optimistic then the battle is already lost. When faced with with fear, humans panic, and end up in despair instead of being spurred into action… I also think what Susanne said about technology rings true– that technology alone won’t solve a crisis like this, but that its effect is often understated by activists, shown in her example of the late 19th century’s “horse manure crisis” and the introduction of the automobile. Now we think of the automobile as the great polluter, when at the time, it was more ecologically friendly than mass usage of horses in cities.
Learning about the world gives us a different lens to consider as we look at our own town. Comparing Burlington to places around the world furthers our understanding of Burlington itself… Realizing that the content we discuss is globally relevant also makes it feel more important, and worth caring about. I also really like having perspectives from different places available to me, as I try to determine my own thoughts on a subject. It definitely has expanded my thinking further than if we had just focused on Burlington.