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The Leader

What's so great about outdoor education?

by Sharon Kehoe
Reprinted from The Leader, Winter 1998.

"My NOLS course provided me with some of the finest memories anyone could have. It took many years and many subsequent experiences for the lessons to sink in, but now the time I spend climbing, hiking and camping in a responsible manner, enjoying the beauty while working to preserve its splendor, keeps alive a glimmer of hope for a future where people understand stewardship and live their lives in a balanced and meaningful way."

--David Anderson, NOLS alumni

"I believe my NOLS experience has culminated into a burning desire within me to share the natural world with others. NOLS has given me many references in which to embark on my journey of sharing with my students. I have plans to start an "Explorer's Club," I have contacted the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings Program and we have plans to go out on our first hike. I plan for NOLS to be the first step for me in environmental education."

--Elizabeth Robinson AK Sea Kayaking graduate

"When the school was started the whole purpose was to make leaders of people . . . we wanted them to have an outdoor recreational outlet for the rest of their lives and to do it safely and not harm the environment."

--Paul Petzoldt, Founder of NOLS


As long as NOLS has been in existence it has been operating under the premise that the NOLS experience changes people's lives; Paul Petzoldt says that was his purpose in starting the school. Countless alumni can't say enough about their experience and how they were never the same after they returned home from their course. For years NOLS has been going on word-of-mouth testimonials of the long term benefits of a course. Yet aside from hard skills, what are students really taking away from their course?

One scientist has tried to answer this question. Stephen Kellert is the nation's foremost authority on the relationships between humans and nature. In early 1996 Kellert, a professor of social ecology at Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, initiated a national study of experience-based environmental education.

Kellert has published over 100 articles focusing on natural resource policy, human dimensions in wildlife management and the conservation of biological diversity. He recently completed two books: The Value of Life: Biological Diversity and Human Society and The Biophilia Hypothesis. He has conducted extensive research on human values relating to nature and its conservation and protection. His prior research explores the actual and perceived importance of biological diversity for humankind's physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well being. Kellert's more than 20 years of research show that the relationship between humans and nature involves biologically based, inherent human tendencies that are greatly influenced by culture, learning, and experience. In other words, humans have an innate desire to affiliate with nature.

During the past 30 years experience-based environmental education has increased dramatically. An abundance of informal evidence suggests experiential education often exerts a major influence on participants. Experiential education influences a person's self concept, environmental appreciation and understanding, critical thinking and problem solving skills, career choices and commitment to public service. However, most of the data is anecdotal and lacks in scientific rigor.

Kellert's current study of experiential education will change that by assessing personal and social benefits of outdoor, wilderness-based education. The goal is to quantify the impacts that NOLS and other outdoor education schools have on their participants. It will provide a chance to use this information to improve the student experience and to integrate this knowledge more effectively into formal environmental education taught in traditional schools and classrooms. Kellert chose participants from NOLS, Outward Bound and the Student Conservation Association. These organizations were singled out due to their national reputation, focus on wilderness-type experience, length of existence and high level of program standardization. This is the largest, most comprehensive and scientific study ever conducted of the subject.

Two complementary studies are the focus of Kellert's project. One is a retrospective study of students who participated on courses at some point in the past. The other is a longitudinal study which surveyed students just before, immediately following and six months after their course. Major research variables in both studies included the students' environmental awareness and knowledge, environmental values, career choice and community service, outdoor recreational interests and behaviors, interpersonal relationships, critical thinking and problem solving skills, self esteem, academic interests and performance, physical fitness and well-being.

While the research is still in progress, the results from the retrospective study have been analyzed. The findings are considered preliminary but are fairly compelling. The most striking result of the retrospective study was the perceived overall impact of the experience. Almost 80 percent of participants reported that their course exerted a major influence on their lives with more than 70 percent viewing the experience as among the best in their lives. In addition, 80 percent of participants also noted a substantial increase in environmental awareness as a consequence of participation and wrote that they had become more environmentally responsible. Notable increases were reported in home recycling, avoiding the use of environmentally damaging products and reading about the environment. A majority of respondents reported very positive changes in self reliance, self confidence, strength, maturity, happiness, initiative, independence, self respect, peace of mind and ability to take risks.

The following comment is a sample of remarks made regarding the perceived impact of the programs on environmental interests, attitudes and behaviors: "Before the program my feelings of ethical responsibility and stewardship were just ideals. Through the program, I gained confidence and incentive to actually act on those feelings. Ever since, I have felt a connection with the environment and a desire to continue that stewardship."

The next remark is illustrative of major character development changes attributed to participating in an extended wilderness based course: "The program helped me realize who I was and how I fit into the world around me. This realization affects every decision I make in my life."

The results point in a direction that seems to corroborate what NOLS has felt to be true for years. These results say that outdoor experiential learning is extremely valuable for all kinds of human development. Our national educational system is lacking in these types of learning activities and it will continue to be important to make NOLS courses and experiences like them accessible to a wider population.

Thirty-two years after starting the school, Paul Petzoldt, on the eve of his 90th birthday, says this is what he has been feeling for years, "Of course it'll change their lives, it's a wonderful experience coming to NOLS. These kids know about and are concerned with the outdoors. These courses teach kids how to live the expedition of life."--Paul Petzoldt



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