Michelle G. Heaton, Ph.D., is a 2020 graduate of the Ph.D. Program in Environmental Studies at Antioch University, New England

Dissertation Committee:

  • Jimmy Karlan, Ed.D., Committee Chair
  • Lisbeth Willey, Ph.D., Committee Member
  • Nikki Gamrath, Ed.D., Committee Member


place-based education, transformative learning, fuzzy-logic cognitive mapping, social-ecological systems, learning systems, real-world problem solving

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In response to mounting wicked environmental problems and an outdated U.S. educational system, this dissertation investigates transformative place-based education as an adaptive boundary system that connects individual learning to positive social-ecological change. The research approaches learning through a systems lens through a novel framework of Social-ecological Systems, Place-based Education, and Transformative Learning Theories. A three-part mixed methods approach, including content analysis of the literature, phenomenological interviews with experts in place-based education, and fuzzy-logic cognitive mapping with educators at three schools practicing the principles of place-based education, is used to examine transformative place-based education from the perspectives of current U.S. place-based educators. Twenty-four components of a transformative place-based learning system are identified in the research and used in constructing fuzzy-logic cognitive maps. Four essential themes emerge from the data that are discussed as levers that link individual learning to positive social-ecological change: active engagement, context and connection to place, collaborative real-world problem solving, and courageous leadership. The research indicates that most central to transformative place-based learning experiences is real-world problem solving. The causal relationships between real-world problem solving and almost every other learning system component, including agency, change, and place, creates the strongest link in this study between individual learning and positive social-ecological change.


Michelle G. Heaton

ORCID Scholar ID# 0000-0003-2028-8366