Finding the Three E’s of Sustainability Outdoors

Shawn Brodeur-Stevens has been an educator at New Hampshire’s Charlestown Middle School for more than 20 years.

Shawn Brodeur-Stevens has been an educator at Charlestown Middle School for more than 20 years, and is still surprised by the benefits of place-based education every single day. Over those two decades, PBE has become the philosophy grounding all subject matter in Stevens’ classroom. He views PBE as all-encompassing, the most successful way for students to become connected to their home and feel empowered in their learning. “Teachers who use PBE don’t worry about motivation,” says Stevens, who finds himself having to keep up with his students' questions and interests, not the other way around, “venturing into the unknown and discovering answers together.”

During remote instruction, Stevens’ classes had the best attendance in his school. He feels it's because his class wants to know what comes next each day; because they're involved and invested in what is being taught, they show up. Those feelings of empowerment and ownership come from the class’ grounding in the environment and community. 

“Community and land are one and the same,” says Stevens. His students visit the same geographic spaces each week where they can visualize the ripple effects of certain actions, and learn the science behind the environment’s past treatment and current state. One of the methods Stevens utilizes in these moments is “sit spots.” They create a personal moment for his students to be challenged to contemplate the questions he asks of them. 

“Community and land are one and the same."

By going outdoors, broad, often daunting topics like climate change become more approachable. Moving outside the school’s walls creates more opportunities for connection and visualization. It also provides context for real-life challenges and human responses. “Students have to understand what community is, and build it on the first day. I empower them to take care of themselves and each other, to show kindness toward each other and the environment.” When hiccups pop up, like marker flags being accidentally removed from their plot survey, or a rude gesture in class, they become unplanned lessons on respect and self-worth. Together, students learn that their response to a challenge is more important than the challenge itself.

In addition to “environment,” Stevens finds the other two E’s of sustainability, “equity” and “economics,” arise naturally in PBE. When his students sit in the classroom, they’re “surrounded by material things, things that scream status to peers and place in the community. When outside, sitting on the ground, everyone is equal,” explained Stevens. Over the years, he’s struggled to find common language and examples that are accessible to every student regardless of their background. He knows now that the outdoors are one way to even the playing field. 

The outdoors are also one of the best tools for discussing worth. Stevens sees his students apply value differently after taking his class. On one such day, just after April break, students spent time looking at ferns, giving their attention and appreciation to something not traditionally considered valuable. Stevens sees the real weight of these experiences: “They are in awe of nature, despite no monetary value. Learn early for the future what brings happiness.” 

Project City Charlestown
Project State New Hampshire
Project School Charlestown Middle School
Pedagogical Area
  • place-based education, environment as integrating context (EIC)
  • outdoor education, experiential education
Subject Area
  • science, math, engineering, technology (STEM)
  • environmental science, environmental studies, ecological restoration
  • human rights, environmental justice
  • leadership development, civics, political science
Outcome Area
  • environmental knowledge, attitude and awareness
  • stewardship behavior
  • environmental change
Participant Area
  • student
Age Area
  • middle school (12-14 years old)