PBL Projects & Insights

Advisory and Local Learning: Saving Wild Horses

Posted by Camille Mortimore on June 21, 2016
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Teacher passion and a big local problem provided one PBL school advisory group a challenge that built their skills, deepened relationships, and helped their community. They teamed up for a place-based, project-based learning partnership that helped them learn to collaborate more effectively, and meet success and failure head on.    Advisory Guide Yakama School
Photo: More than 15,000 wild horses are eating sacred plants and foods of the Yakama Nation. (Toppenish, WA)

Yakama Nation Tribal School in central Washington state began the Wild Horse project, where students researched and designed to solve a big and complex problem. Wild horses—5,000 of them—eating the high plateau desert plants to the ground, destroying sacred and medicinal foods in the process. Clearly, the horses love their environment, but over-population is making food scarce, weakening the horses, and destroying the land. Yakama students and their advisor partnered with Heritage University researchers to document horse movement and feeding patterns, then designed systems to keep the horses away from valued plants. GPS photo plotting, site fencing, data collection and interpretation were used to understand some pretty complex science and technology to save the horses. A solution would mean that healthier wild horses and their tribal neighbors could continue to live in harmony as they have for hundreds of years.

Over the months, the advisory group had a lot of small successes. There were also some challenges: they produced conflicting data, nature refused to cooperate, and they had to manage the disappointment of not actually solving the problem—perhaps none of which seems too surprising with a big, complex problem to solve. What got them through was the mentoring of their advisor who had years of experience in solving really big problems. With that came advisory daily discussions that allowed their frustrations and disappointment to be put out in the open, then channeled into active learning and mutual support. Wild Horse project, where students researched and designed to solve a big and complex problem. Wild horses—5,000 of them—eating the high plateau desert plants to the ground, destroying sacred and medicinal foods in the process. Clearly, the horses love their environment, but over-population is making food scarce, weakening the horses, and destroying the land. Yakama students and their advisor partnered with Heritage University researchers to document horse movement and feeding patterns, then designed systems to keep the horses away from valued plants. GPS photo plotting, site fencing, data collection and interpretation were used to understand some pretty complex science and technology to save the horses. A solution would mean that healthier wild horses and their tribal neighbors could continue to live in harmony as they have for hundreds of years.

Avalon School Advisory Guide

Like the best of projects, Wild Horse is truly a local problem with real local motivation to solve it, resulting in compelling local benefits. It’s place-based, where partners bring their own local focus, knowledge, and resources to make the science in this project real-world, authentic and engaging. (And the project will continue next year.) The immediate benefits of working as a team made the experience a powerful immersion into real-world work and built 21st century skills: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. 

This high school team will remember the Wild Horse experience long into their adult lives. They now have a powerful reference point for working on future team challenges.

What local problem is waiting for your students? What organization or business is likely to be interested in solving that problem? Build the relationship and link their expertise to the talent and energy of your kids. Use advisory group as the home base for strengthening skills, and building team and student agency for their learning and lives.

Yakama Nation Tribal School Project Foundry

Photo: YNTS students measuring GPS photo plots. (Yakama Nation, WA)

The power of the learning comes from “going local,” from being place-based, from starting close to home… getting that, and then moving out to “get” the bigger world.