Place-based Climate Education in Action

By Megan Van Loh
Vol. 21 No. 3 Autumn 2018

“Getting students outside is an essential component of climate change education. We know that when students get outside they develop a sense of place, experience health benefits, connect with relevant learning experiences and focus more in school, which all lead to better overall performance.”

When the monks who founded Saint John’s settled in Collegeville in 1866, they were making the decision to stay for the long haul. They observe the Rule of St. Benedict, which has the Benedictine Values of stability and stewardship, among others. This means they cultivate rooted-ness and care for all goods of this place; this “place” being a 2,944-acre section of central Minnesota made up of prairie, forest, oak savanna, wetlands and lakes, the home of a monastery and eventual university and outdoor school.

It makes sense that 150 years later, when I attended Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s as a college student, I felt that cultivated sense of place. While the landscape had surely changed since the first settlement, it was with careful planning and awareness of the longevity of their community that it still thrives. It was here that I discovered my sense of wonder for the natural environment, which is why I was so excited to be back on campus, many years after graduating, to share it with over fifty people from across the country through Climate Generation’s 13th annual Summer Institute for Climate Change Education.

Climate Generation is a nonprofit in Minneapolis that engages people in climate change solutions, where I work as senior programs coordinator supporting our outreach with educators, youth and communities. Every year we hold a multi-day conference for educators from around the country with the goal of building their confidence, tools and resources to bring climate change into their educational setting. Hosting our conference at Saint John’s provided educators with endless examples of place-based education to adapt to their own schools and environments.

To manage the land for a changing climate, Saint John’s has taken into account the importance of high species diversity for a resilient forest. A critical species of high-quality hardwood at high risk of becoming rare is oak. Oak trees are long-lived species and critical to the future health of the forest, but are shade intolerant and challenging to grow in high populations of deer. The regeneration of oak trees is a focus of the land stewardship at Saint John’s. In addition to creating a healthy forest, Saint John’s has a history of sustainably harvesting wood from their land to frame the buildings and build the furniture seen around campus today. Their practice makes sure harvesting does not exceed the net growth of the forest.

In 2009 Saint John’s initiated a collective action in response to climate change with the installation of a solar array. Over a quarter of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from our use and generation of electricity. Their solar array has grown in size and now provides almost 19% of Saint John’s annual energy needs. The installation was designed so that 80% of the land would not be disturbed; and native prairie grasses and flowers have been planted around the panels to help with water absorption and provide a habitat for pollinators.

Place-based education is an effective way to engage people with the issue of climate change. Saint John’s Outdoor University – and its mission to provide education about the environment and outdoors – is precisely attuned to the place-based model and is a perfect way of engaging students and the public with climate change.

Learning about local impacts makes climate change relevant and meaningful to people’s lives. It engages them in action-based learning to solve problems in their communities and draws on cultural values and beliefs from the history of the place. Getting students outside is an essential component of climate change education. We know that when students get outside they develop a sense of place, experience health benefits, connect with relevant learning experiences and focus more in school, which all lead to better overall performance.

All students that attend Outdoor U field trips are able to experience nature and interact with hands-on activities that allow them to learn about different flora and fauna, understand local land management practices and get an appreciation for the outdoors. One group of students that forms deep connections to the place where they attend school is the sixth grade class at Saint John’s Preparatory School. Located on the Saint John’s campus just steps away from the forest, these students form deep connections with the area that surrounds them daily, through experiences both with Outdoor U and their classroom teachers.

Outdoor U staff lead them on a number of field trips including activities such as tree identification, gathering and interpreting data from areas that represent the biomes of Minnesota, canoeing, maple syruping and water quality testing. Their classroom teachers help connect them to the land in numerous other ways, including having everyone “adopt a spot.” Each student chooses one spot in the forest to revisit weekly throughout the year. At their spot the students document changes to the area by journaling, recording data, creative writing and more. The teachers report that students still visit their “spot” years later and that activity is often listed as a favorite top ten activity at the end of the year. The combination of all those experiences create a bond between the students and the land, which prepares them to better understand the ongoing changes in our climate and local environment.

Thinking back on the Benedictine Value of stability, we know the monks of Saint John’s will continue to live on this land for many, many years to come. They will have to adapt to a changing climate but are already implementing specific climate change solutions all around campus and through Outdoor U, generating an undercurrent of hope along the way. Educating and exposing people to these solutions makes them feel more empowered to make change in their own communities. What action can you take?

Megan Van Loh is the senior programs coordinator at Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, a non-profit organization in Minneapolis. As a Saint Ben’s student, Megan worked for Outdoor U as a naturalist. A version of this article was first published on the blog at


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