The Rowland Foundation

2022 Rowland Fellow
Bryan Dickinson, North Country Union
High School

Math and Place-based Education

This phrase has become more relevant than ever. Beyond the pandemic, many of my students are very aware of, and worried about, the looming crises of climate change and environmental degradation that they are inheriting. They have also expressed a desire for community action projects to help solve these crises, but feel a lack of agency at school. Fortunately, other VT educators are bringing their classes into the community and the community into their classrooms, giving students a chance to learn deeply about the place in which they live and to act on local issues. I seek to learn from the structures refined by the City and Lake Semester at Burlington High School, the Walden Project in Monkton, The Mountain Campus at Burr and Burton Academy, and the Center for Sustainable Systems at Montpelier High School. Each of these programs emphasizes the study of Vermont through the sciences, humanities, and arts.

With my Rowland Fellowship, I will expand upon the work of others by truly integrating math into place-based education. Too often, “real-world applications” of math are canned textbook problems, but the real world of math is messy, profound, and beautiful. My training in math and history shows math applications can be quite unexpected. Number theorists 300 years ago could never have imagined the modern computer and network security, yet their ideas form the foundation of both. However, teenagers need to see a more immediate use, therefore my project seeks to tell a geographical story. We live in an age where geographic information systems (GIS) influence many aspects of life, including the use of digital maps to navigate unfamiliar places. Fortunately, GIS’s underlying mathematics come from standard high school math courses. By building spatial analysis into a place-based education that studies the changing climate, environment, and human societies, we can, hopefully, provide an answer to the ever present question of “when will I ever use this?” With organizations like the Green Mountain Club, Vermont Land Trust, and Northwoods Stewardship Center operating nearby, there are many opportunities to bring Vermont into the classroom and vice versa.

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