August 29, 2022

Preparing College Students for Career and Leadership Development Through Place-Based Learning  

Written by Liz Cardenas, PFF Fellow and Doctoral Student in the School of Community and Global Health. Liz is also the Assistant Director of Leadership Equity, California Primary Care Association 

Place-based learning is a pedagogical approach typically associated with teaching young children. For example, imagine taking a third-grade classroom on a trip to their local park to learn about the science of trees while drawing and having conversations about parks and their benefits to their community. While place-based learning is most widely associated with teaching young children, many of the same principles can be fruitfully integrated into college teaching to prepare students to flourish in their careers and develop their leadership capacities.   

Place-based learning expands learning outside the classroom often to local communities that serve as learning ecosystems for understanding local and global challenges. It can also provide a systematic approach for students to collect data to understand the economic, ecological, and socio-political systems to make a meaningful impact in the communities where they are placed. This is especially important today – not just in creating meaningful and active engagement but in developing a host of other skills and perspectives beyond subject mastery to successfully prepare students to navigate and lead in today’s complex world.  

Place-based learning enables student agency and can make learning more personally relevant using project-based and inquiry-based approaches. Students can develop new skills by directly tackling real-world challenges and allowing students to observe, ask questions, and make predictions. Students also have more opportunities to collaborate and learn from one another in a more semi-structured approach. This approach can increase student motivation to learn when they have a personal stake in the subject and can lend direct experiences connected to current local or global issues.   

Another important aspect of place-based learning is that it applies an interdisciplinary approach that uses places and resources as a foundation for learning across disciplines. These applied opportunities can help reinforce course content and theory in classroom settings and can lead to positive student learning outcomes across multiple disciplines such as:  

Writing courses – by having students write about community spaces, use photo essays, and conduct interviews with community members. An interdisciplinary approach can be used by connecting learning with other disciplines such as biology, art, history, etc. where students apply concepts from these subjects to their exploration and writing about and with communities. For example, exploring historical buildings or the demographic origins of a community, mapping the fauna and flora or water systems in a community, or seeking out local artists for interviews.  

Math Courses – by having students apply math principles and formulas to explore local architecture or create a statistical infographic about community demographics. Again, this lends itself to an interdisciplinary approach connecting learning math with art/history, geography, etc.  

Place-based pedagogies purposefully engage students in direct experience and reflection and support inclusive learning environments and a growth mindset. In fact, place-based learning can be considered the application of experiential learning in physical settings where there is “learning through action” and “learning by doing.” In this context, educators immerse students in relevant experiences that focus on reflection and peer collaboration to increase knowledge, develop skills, and clarify values (Association for Experiential Education).    

As student-centered approaches, place-based and experiential learning allow learners to draw from their own experiences by doing, discovering, reflecting, and applying. John Dewey popularized experiential learning with a focus on problem-solving and critical thinking. David Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning proposes that experience is critical in developing knowledge construction, as learning occurs through discovery and active participation. In Kolb’s experiential learning model, learners progress through the stages in a cycle that transforms experiences into knowledge when they can apply abstract concepts to new situations.   

As a pedagogy, the rich potential of place-based and experiential learning used to teach younger learners can also be applied to older learners and points to many benefits in college teaching. These approaches expand student’s skills and leadership mindsets beyond subject mastery to apply knowledge and feedback, engage in reflection, and develop collaboration and communication skills. Through these experiences, students respond to and solve problems and processes for communities and places they care about and will empower them in career situations and the complex, changing future they will enter.  


Getting Smart Quick Start Guide to Place-Based Education Quick Start Guide to Place-Based Education | Getting Smart

George Mason University. Center for Teaching Excellence (2011). About teaching: Experiential learning.

University of California Davis (UC Davis). 2011. “5-Step Experiential Learning Cycle Definitions.”  

Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2012). Experiential learning. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from

Wurdinger, S. D., & Carlson, J. A. (2010). Teaching for experiential learning: Five approaches that work. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education. 

Kolb, D. A. 2014. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. United Kingdom: FT Press