Child wading through water and plants

Culture, Learning, & Equity

  • There have been significant shifts in some fundamental understandings of the ways that human beings learn. Increasingly, the emphasis is on learning with understanding rather than memorization. While knowing facts is important, useable knowledge is better.
  • All people come to activities with a range of prior knowledge, experiences, beliefs, skills, values, and interests (2). These, in turn, affect ones’ abilities to remember, reason, problem-solve, and acquire new knowledge (3). Whether intentionally or not people connect and make sense of new experiences and knowledge in relation to previous experiences and knowledge.
  • Thus, learning happens most efficiently when teachers actively engage students’ prior knowledge and view it as an asset for learning rather than a problem to overcome (4). This has been referred to as engaging students funds of knowledge (5). This can and often does include instruction in a student’s first language.

Resources for more information

Indigenous Education Tools

Photograph of Alice Tsoodle and children

Participatory Design Research

This project aims to re-envision the places of science learning by engaging in a place-based participatory design research (PDR) project with teachers, families, administrators, garden coordinators, and researchers.  This project emphasizes processes of partnership (co-designing) and role re-mediations in the design and implementation of learning.

Who participates in design, how design processes occur, and what relational dynamics are prioritized shape the opportunities for learning that are enacted.

PDR aims to expand predictable patterns of roles, relations, and powered decision-making towards critical role re-mediations that empower non-dominant families & communities.

Two children alongside a lake

Family & Community Leadership & Expertise

Family and community engagement and leadership is necessary to creating and sustaining culturally-relevant and academically stimulating places for learning.1-3 As such, many learning environments such as schools are required to incorporate family and community engagement in their programs, yet rely on outdated and inequitable forms of partnering that can actually disengage many families and communities. In particular, nondominant individuals, families, and communities – or those marginalized and excluded due to race, language, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sex, and sexual orientation, etc. – are often most impacted by educational decisions, yet least likely to participate in the decision-making process. For example, funding decisions; curricular adoption, design, and implementation; and educator hiring and training are just a few examples that matter in the educational lives of students and their families and communities.This brief synthesizes promising research that leverages family and community knowledge and expertise and provides some key practices to supporting engagement and leadership. In particular, this brief focuses on collaborating with families and communities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curricular design and implementation.

Complex Systems Thinking

  • Understanding complex socio-ecological systems is increasingly important in a world that is socially and ecologically shifting at rapid rates.1 For example, it is important to understand and be able to reason about patterns in the Earth’s climate or diversity of life. Systems reasoning, or being able to understand properties and behaviors of systems, is an academic demand in science learning environments.2 Complex systems, such as traffic patterns or the stock market, are web-like, have emergent properties, and are self-organizing across time and space.3 Complex ecological systems, such as a coral reef or forest, refer to natural systems and the dense web of relationships and interactions of which they are comprised. Finally, socio-ecological systems include humans, and consider the relationships between human systems and ecological systems.
  • Researchers have begun to identify reasoning patterns that support complex socio-ecological systems thinking, and some conceptual frameworks, activities, and practices that can support these. These patterns include: abductive or probabilistic reasoning (considering multiple variables affecting a phenomenon);16 mechanistic reasoning (attending to multiple causal mechanisms behind processes);14, 16 and reasoning from multiple perspectives (seeing the same phenomenon from multiple roles and relationships).22
  • Teachers and families play critical roles in supporting learning about complex socio-ecological systems. It is important to bring in non-dominant student’s family and community perspectives, experiences, and expertise to diversify scientific practices. Sharing family and community knowledges or practices also help make complex socio-ecological systems visible and relevant in children’s lives.

Socio-ecological Decision Making

Socio-ecological decisions are those made by individuals, communities, organizations, and institutions that are informed by and impact the natural world. These decisions are affected by relationships between humans and the natural world, what is called “nature-culture relations”.
Nature-culture relations often vary by culture, context, and society, and affect which socio-ecological decisions are made and enacted. Understanding the connections between humans and the natural world is imperative for creating and sustaining socially and environmentally just decisions.

Dr. Megan Bang

Principal Investigator

Northwestern University

Megan Bang is a Professor of the Learning Sciences and Psychology at Northwestern University and is currently serving as the Senior Vice President at the Spencer Foundation. Dr. Bang’s research focuses on understanding culture, learning, and development broadly with a specific focus on the complexities of navigating multiple meaning systems in creating and implementing more effective learning environments in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics education. Megan approaches her work through rigorous mixed methods – utilizing experimental design in her foundational cognition and development studies, to community based participatory design work in which she co-designs learning and teaching with communities, families, and youth as well as engages in the collaborative study of such environments. She conducts research in both schools and informal settings. She has taught in and conducted research in teacher education as well as leadership preparation programs. Dr. Bang has won several awards including the AERA early career award in Indigenous Education as well as the Division K early career award in Teaching and Teacher Education. She has published in leading outlets such as Cognition & Instruction, Science Education, and Educational Psychologist. She is currently serving on the Board of Science Education at the National Academy of Sciences and the editorial boards of several top journals.

Dr. Carrie Tzou

University of Washington Bothell

Co-Principal Investigator

Dr. Carrie Tzou is an associate professor in science education in the School of Educational Studies and a PI in the Goodlad Institute. She holds a PhD in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University and an M.S. in Teaching and Learning with a concentration in science education from Vanderbilt University.
Her research has three major components, all connected with an interest in addressing issues of culture, identity, and equity in science and environmental science learning:
1) ethnographic work to understand how youth and their communities are positioned and position themselves through place-based education,
2) design-based research to design curricula to bring youths’ out of school science and cultural practices into science and environmental science teaching and learning, and
3) research and design of elementary and secondary preservice teacher education that explores how to orient preservice teachers to the sophisticated learning and identities that their students construct both in and out of school in order to make science more accessible to all of their students.


Phenology is the study of seasonal impacts on plant and animal life cycles – including humans.

Learning more about phenology can help us think about complex social – ecological systems and human relations with the natural world and the decisions we make daily and over time. Through our Field Based Seasonal Storyline, we learn more about how seasons shape and reflect our relationship to the natural world.

Connecting Phenology to the Classroom

How are we Studying Phenology in Learning in Places?


For K-3 students, the study of phenology serves as a lens through which family and cultural experiences, and Next Generation Science Standards (Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts) can all be investigated. Students can practice everything from observing phenomena to asking questions to analyzing data to communicating information. Phenology touches the physical, life, earth and space science, as well as engineering, technology, and applications of science. Furthermore, patterns, cause and effect, etc. can all be seen in phenology. Studying seasonal changes based on students’ wonderings provides a path toward “engaging all students in both meaningful learning and socio-ecological decision making.”


For families, seasonal changes provide touch points for all cultures and communities. Every family has stories that map onto the change of seasons, and many people’s understandings of nature come through these stories. When these unique perceptions of nature show up in the classroom, students can engage in more culturally relevant science learning. As research has shown, family and community engagement and leadership is necessary to creating and sustaining culturally-relevant and academically stimulating places for learning. Learning in Places engages families’ knowledges and practices throughout the storyline by embedding learning opportunities that connect investigation to families’ home lives and communities.

Co-Designing Storylines

Using the Field Based Science Seasonal Storyline framework, teachers can co-design yearlong investigations with students and families. By eliciting stories and curiosities from students, classes can go outside on wondering walks that provide phenomena for further study. These can be developed into questions and models that provide predictions that can further refine models. After going on wondering walks with families, this process will generate new questions that will prepare students for data collection. This data will be analyzed and models then revised once again. Rinse and repeat as necessary. Eventually, students can use their data and models to construct explanations about the seasonal phenomena that they have investigated, and share these insights as experts. To summarize, we will start with what students and families wonder about, continue with what they want to learn about, and build an investigation around the questions that will help them learn about their wonderings.



  • Wolf, Zavaleta, & Selmants. (2017). Flowering phenology shifts in response to biodiversity loss. PNAS
  • Forrest J. & Rushing A. J. (2010). Toward a synthetic understanding of the role of phenology in ecology and evolution. Philosphical Transactions of the Royal Society B 365, 3101-3112.
  • Visser, M. E., Caro, S. P., van Oers, K., Shcaper, S. V., & Helm, B. (2010). Phenology, seasonal timing and circannual rhythms: Towards a unified framework. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 365, 3113-3127.
  • Chuine, I. (2010). Why does phenology drive species distribution? Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society B, 365, 3149–3160.

Sharon Siehl

Tilth Alliance

Co-Principal Investigator

Sharon Siehl joined Seattle Tilth (now Tilth Alliance) in July 2013, after completing her Master’s in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University. She is a Program Director working with Youth Education, and has held several leadership roles around Garden and Adult Education.  She co-facilitates the School Learning Garden Network with Seattle Public Schools and is co-leader in the Washington Farm to School Network. Sharon is an informal outdoor educator working with children, students, teachers, parents and community members in school gardens and outdoor spaces in Columbus, OH, Houston, TX and Seattle for 14 years.  She is passionate about creating a just food system through food policy and community work, and is a co-founder of the Houston Food Policy Workgroup. She, her husband, and two sons enjoy planting, eating, traveling, reading and local adventures.

Headshot of Leah Bricker

Leah Bricker

Spencer Foundation

Research Scientist

Leah Bricker is a Research Associate Professor at Northwestern University and the Spencer Foundation.  She is a science educator and a learning scientist who studies children and youths’ science-related learning trajectories in schools and in other learning environments, such as museums, gardens, and zoos. She is really interested in connections between language (verbal and nonverbal communication) and science learning. Leah also uses design-based research to design science curricula in partnership with youths, families, and teachers, and then studies the curricula in action. Leah’s undergraduate and Master’s degrees are in the biological sciences (from the University of Arizona and Purdue University, respectively), and her PhD is in the learning sciences from the University of Washington. She was a middle school science teacher in Indianapolis, IN before working on issues related to science education policy at the Indiana Department of Education and at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061. Bricker has also helped preservice science teachers learn to teach science, and has designed and facilitated professional development experiences with and for practicing science teachers.

Nat Mengist

University of Washington

Research Study Lab Coordinator 2

Nat completed a Master’s in Education Policy at the UW College of Education in 2016, one year after receiving a Bachelors of Arts in Comparative History of Ideas, also at UW. He is also currently the Outreach Coordinator for the Comparative History of Ideas Department at UW and the Board President of The Common Acre, a 501(c)(3) organization that creates space for science and stories across cultures. Nat comes to Learning in Places after coordinating children’s gardens for Tilth Alliance, and his research interests include facilitation design, posthuman learning, and plant consciousness.

Charlene Montaño Nolan

University of Washington

Research Assistant

I am a doctoral student in Learning Sciences and Human Development. My research interests are in early childhood science learning and family/community leadership and engagement. Utilizing participatory design research methods, I am interested in co-creating equitable spaces for families, communities, educators, and researchers to design and implement (and re-design) early learning environments that foster expansive forms of science education. I am a research assistant on the Family Leadership Design Collaborative project and the Learning in Places project. I am also a mom of two vibrant, amazing girls.

Priya Pugh

University of Washington

Research Assistant

I am a PhD candidate in Learning Sciences and Human Development. I completed my Master’s in Education at the UW in 2012, with a certificate in Education for Environment and Community from IslandWood in 2011. I have been an educator in both formal and informal learning settings as a naturalist and field instructor. I have also directed and designed environmental education and outdoor-based STEAM learning programs here in Seattle. My research focuses on how people learn about science when they are outside. More specifically, I am interested in how youth, adults, and families understand and actively make sense of complex ecological phenomena, and the social and cultural influences on this sense making.

Maren Neldam

Maren Neldam

Tilth Alliance

Youth Education Program Manager

Maren Neldam is the Youth Education Program Manager at Tilth Alliance. She has been working in place-based environmental and food systems education for 10 years, and previously worked in sustainable agriculture and river restoration. In her roles at Tilth, she has worked with people of all ages to steward land, grow food, and cook in community. This includes leading science-based outdoor education in school gardens and public green spaces, facilitating workshops for teachers and families on sustainable school garden program development and outdoor education, and supporting design and development of school and community gardens. She is passionate to learn about complex systems and participate in community driven solutions to environmental and food issues.

Jordan Sherry-Wagner

Jordan Sherry-Wagner

University of Washington

Research Assistant

Jordan Sherry-Wagner is a doctoral student in Learning Sciences and Human Development. His research interests revolve around science education, philosophical discourse, identity development, and everyday learning in early childhood. He is particularly interested in how meaning is co-constructed through discursive practices and how educators can open up spaces for relational ways of knowing that align with emerging understandings of complex socio-ecological systems. He received his M.Ed. in Learning Science and Human Development from the University of Washington in 2015 and is also the Director of a local Early Learning Center where he contributes to axiological change in early learning from another vantage point.

Alice Tsoodle

University of Washington

Research Lab Coordinator

Alice Tsoodle is a proud mom of three amazing children. She comes from the Kiowa people of Oklahoma and is also descendent of Irish settlers. Her interests and experiences include walking with and learning from children as they reclaim their relationships with lands, waters and more than human relatives. She holds a masters degree in education (UW), a bachelors in environmental studies (UWB) and certificates in education for environment and community (IW), restoration ecology (UW), and permaculture (OSU). Her work specializes in community outreach, program development, outdoor environmental education, curriculum design, and learning sciences research.

Anna Johnson

Anna Johnson

Tilth Alliance

Research and Education Associate

Anna Johnson is a Research and Education Associate for Tilth Alliance. Before becoming an informal educator, she received a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a Minor in French from Calvin College in 2012. She has worked with community members of all ages around growing and cooking food. For four years, she served as a community partner on a research project around food access and food security in Michigan. In 2017, she returned to the Pacific Northwest and continued her work in informal education with Pacific Science Center and now with Tilth Alliance. She enjoys learning about the natural world through place-based science investigations.