Burritos and The Environment: A Winning Combo for "Place Based" Learning

  • Sep 26, 2017

If you ate two burritos a week for the next year, what kind of resources would you need to produce the food? This was just one of the questions posed at the "Human Impacts on the Environment and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for K12 Education" workshop recently conducted by EES’ Joyce Parker and Jane Rice. This workshop is the education portion of the $2.8 million USDA/NIFA study on development and promotion of water, nutrient and climate smart technologies to help agricultural systems adapt to climate and societal changes.

Joyce Parker and Jane Rice
Joyce Parker and Jane Rice

Parker and Rice gathered 36 teachers together for a three-day workshop at the MSU Union from August 8 - 10, 2017. Parker explained, “We work with teachers to help them understand the environmental issues around agriculture. And then give them time to research the parts that they are interested in and figure out how to bring them into their own classroom… There are new national standards for science, and so the other thing we are doing at the same time is helping them understand what those new standards are.”

The key idea for this event is to show that people may impact the environment, but they can make choices to limit that impact. As Rice explained, the method behind this approach is called “Place Based” learning. “So rather than studying human impacts on the Amazon rain forest, you study impacts right here and that leads eventually to students being able to make decisions that actually have meaning for their own lives.”

In this workshop, the place-based example was eating two burritos a week for a year. Rice said the challenge was calculating the resources to make those meals happen. “Maybe you put beans on it or maybe you put chicken, maybe you put beef, and you do that for a year. How much land do you need? To grow the beans, to grow corn to feed the chickens or corn to feed the cow, and then how much fertilizer does all that take? Eventually you follow, where does the fertilizer go? What’s the impact?”

Another concept that was put into action is the 3-dimensional teaching strategy required by the new state and national standards for K12 science. These three dimensions focus on students knowing science, doing science, and thinking science.  In an effort to show the variation in land use between bean, chicken and beef burritos using 3D science learning, Rice said they took the teachers outside and lined them up in rows to mark off the area for each ingredient. “There will be twelve teachers in each group. The first group will be, “I’m just eating bean burritos.” So they only need 175 square feet. …Then the next group will come in and they’re the chicken and they need 400 square feet. And finally the beef comes on and they need 2000.”

Workshop teachers measuring out land use for bean (grren), chicken (blue) and beef (red) tacos.Workshop participants show the land use requirements for Bean (green), Chicken (blue), and Beef (red) burritos.


Kim Nowlin-Brown
Kim Nowlin-Brown

The participating teachers came from a variety of secondary educational settings, including traditional high schools, special education classes and residential treatment programs. Among them was Kim Nowlin Brown, from Starr Albion Prep in Albion, Michigan. Brown works with 12-18 years olds in a program for adjudicated youth.  “I was trying to find a way to take the standards and make it work in our setting. I meet Jane at the Michigan Science Teachers Conference and that’s how I found out about this.


Brian Tasior
Brain Tasior

Brian Tasior is a Physics teacher at Stockbridge High School in Stockbridge, Michigan. He thinks the challenge is to get his teenage students to start thinking about their personal impact on the environment. “It’s a very mature way of thinking about science, so this workshop has helped me not only think about how to teach human impacts, especially in the context of a physics course, but also how to teach using the three-D learningmodel.” When asked about his favorite part of the experience, Brian called out the land use activity. “It was a beautiful demonstration on how to teach and learn using the 3-D method. It was a really awesome activity, I guess it gives me something to shoot for.”


Whitney Vanoost
Whiteny Vanoost

Whitney Vanoost works with the special education certificate program at Western International High School in the Detroit Public School District. For her, the placed-based approach will make the concepts easier for her students to grasp. “I like how that was presented because that was so real world. I laugh because my students and I are always talking about food and you couldn’t make it any more relatable than a food that everybody likes to have and make or buy.”


As Brown explained, the practical experience gained in three days made all the difference. “It really helped explain next generation science standards and how to go about using them to teach… I can come in and say, ”Oh let me play with this idea and that idea” and I can actually implement this in my classroom.” According to Vanoost, “My overall impression is this is a great start to get us moving forward into NGSS, not as theoretical book work, but as something tangible, real world, usable product.”