College Credit at NOLS
By Kerry Brophy
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2002, Vol. 17, No. 2
In the NOLS wilderness classroom, students don't fall asleep at their desks-they're too busy living and learning in a dynamic environment where academic and life lessons pop up around every corner. Instead of studying a textbook, they get inches away from a 900-year-old petroglyph left by the Mimbres culture in the American Southwest; instead of discussing cultures around the world, they're travelling with the Aboriginal people in Australia; and instead of reading about biological diversity, they're walking through Wyoming's Wind River Range studying plant and animal life.
For nearly 40 years NOLS has been refining and defining wilderness education. As the premier teacher of outdoor skills and leadership, the school attracts thousands of students each year who want to complement their traditional classroom learning with a NOLS education. And just like other schools, NOLS offers college and graduate-level credit in a range of topics from environmental ethics and leadership techniques to natural history. Since 1980, NOLS and the University of Utah have teamed up to transfer this credit to schools across the country. More than 300 colleges and universities now accept NOLS/University of Utah credit, and many more grant their own credit for NOLS courses.
"My NOLS courses were the capstone experience of my educational career, so it makes sense that students should get these courses for credit," says John Cederquist, coordinator of the natural resources learning class within the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at the University of Utah.
Students pursuing college or graduate credit can take BIO 1960, Natural History of Regional Ecosystems and choose from three course titles all under Natural Resources Learning: Leadership, Environmental Ethics and Leave No Trace, Group Leadership Techniques and Leadership and Wilderness Skills Practicum.
Kelly Brown, from Boise, Idaho, participated in a NOLS Rocky Mountain semester. In high school, she says, "the idea of learning was totally stripped from me; I didn't think anything was interesting." After completing the NOLS course, she said, "I have a thirst. I'm excited for the education."
More than 80 percent of NOLS semester students get college credit for their wilderness education. In 2001, 60 of these semester grads received federal financial aid. Donna Thompson, NOLS registrar, enrolls students and works with high schools, colleges and universities in transferring academic credit.
"The NOLS college credit program reinforces the fact that NOLS is an educational institution," she says. "It all boils down to the fact that the more excited the student gets about their NOLS education, the more they're going to bring to their NOLS course. In turn, that enthusiasm for education is rubbing off on their professors and advisors back at school."
The NOLS brand of education is exciting. Cederquist, who has spent more than 22 years studying experiential education, believes NOLS courses impact students so much because they offer cognitive, behavioral, physical, and spiritual components-things that can't always be achieved in a traditional classroom setting. He's noticed that instead of learning being over when class ends, on NOLS courses the learning process churns every day, all day. Students are learning during formal classes in meteorology, wilderness medicine, natural history and ecology, but also as they're learning by leading a group, navigating the day's route or presenting a history class.
"If you look at the amount of time, and the thought and cognitive and emotional investments that a student makes in a classroom, there's often no significant educational experience as intensive as the time they spend on a NOLS course," Cederquist says. "It's not just time but the level of involvement. Classes take place throughout the day and are not just formal classes but what you learn from students and the environment. There's also a greater variety of instructors-at NOLS there isn't a cookie-cutter type of instructor."
These dynamic educators work in an equally dynamic classroom where the decisions, the consequences and the lessons are real. For students taking academics into the wilderness and receiving college and graduate level credit, this opportunity to learn in exciting, hands-on classes while also expanding leadership and communication skills makes for the educational adventure of a lifetime.