The Impact of Outdoor Adventure Education on Personal and Professional Growth at Southern Oregon University
Southern Oregon University
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
May 25, 2018
Outdoor education in its modern form is a relatively new method of education and therefore has not been the subject of much in-depth or long-term research. What research has been conducted in the field consists mainly of the short-term impact on student performance in school (Flather, 1995). The few scholarly studies that have been conducted on the long-term impact of outdoor education have shown promising and exciting results. This paper shows that in a case study conducted on the current and former students of Southern Oregon University, common themes can be drawn from the experiences of those who have participated in some form of outdoor education. These common experiences and takeaways offer valuable insight about Southern Oregon University’s approach to outdoor education. It will allow administration and students alike to evaluate which approaches work and which don’t and implement positive changes to Southern Oregon University and beyond.
Outdoor recreation is a growing industry in the United States. Full-time engagement in outdoor recreation is no longer reserved for a select few paid professionals, it’s fornearly anyone willing to engage in the accompanying lifestyle. This is the result of many different factors, but one of most important is early exposure. One way to gain this exposure is through outdoor education-based programs. Outdoor education has been growing along-side the outdoor recreation field. Increasingly, universities are offering outdoor programs and outdoor learning experiences to their students.
Outdoor education (i.e. adventure education and practical environmental education) is a powerful tool in achieving both personal and professional growth. Many of the values that are at the forefront in the world of outdoor recreation, values such as teamwork, accountability, responsibility, diligence, organization, creative problem-solving, and communication, are also prioritized in the rest of the world. Because of the hands-on approach required by outdoor education and the contingency of success relying entirely on these values, the participant has no other option than to develop these skills or fail.
This project explores how individuals experience outdoor recreation and education using a case-study approach at Southern Oregon University. How does each individual person perceive the personal and professional impact of these experiences and then reflect on them? What are some common themes across explanations? Can these themes be used to develop a better understanding of what makes outdoor education succeed or not? Can this eventually be used as a tool for evaluating the effectiveness of outdoor education programs?
Southern Oregon University is a leading example of what outdoor education can become with its unique academic department, Outdoor Adventure Leadership (OAL), that focuses on environmental stewardship and outdoor recreation. This, in combination with the Southern Oregon University Outdoor Program (SOU OP), makes for a great foundation for study.
Studies show that participation in outdoor recreation activities (ie. Hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, kayaking, etc.) has been increasing both in number of individuals and in time spent on these activities (Flather, 1995). With this increasing participation comes increasing economic benefit from the field (Burt, 1971). As of 2016, the outdoor industry has become a large enough entity that the United States Government is now required to monitor its impact on the GDP (Outdoor Industry Association, 2016).
Outdoor recreation has gone through many overhauls throughout its lifetime, but it’s only in the past couple decades that it’s undergone its most current changes (Cordell H. K., 1995). Gone are the days of free-for-all, societal outcasts mindset. Today’s serious adventurers are educated and skillful, environmental stewards and self-monitoring citizens that are active in the protection of their environment and impact of their own recreation (Priest 1986, Wright 1996). There’s a correlation between those that paddle the wildest rivers or hike the deepest wildernesses and those who educate our youth or campaign for conservation in our politics.
The has been an underwhelming amount of research done on the impact of outdoor education on anything other than immediate academic performance, and even then, much of the research is dated. There are, however, three leaders in the world of outdoor education research: the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Outward Bound, and the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education (AORE). These three industry leaders have been around for a number of years and have been crucial in developing the framework of outdoor education (Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education 2017, Outward Bound 2017, National Outdoor Leadership School 2017).
The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is a nonprofit global wilderness school. It was founded by Paul Petzoldt who “dreamt of nurturing leaders who know how to live responsibly in the wilderness and teach others to do the same.” (National Outdoor Leadership School, 2017). Along with intensive trips in the field, NOLS also has an extensive division dedicated to research. They focus on four general areas of study: wilderness education outcomes and transfer to daily life, wilderness medicine practices and pedagogy, backcountry nutrition and exercise physiology, and a citizen science program that contributes to knowledge of the ecology of their classrooms around the world (National Outdoor Leadership School, 2017).
Outward Bound is an experience-based outdoor education program that is available to both youth and adults. It was founded by another major player in the field, Kurt Hahn, who based the program on this ideology, “I regard it as the foremost task of education: to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.” (Outward Bound, 2017). Outward Bound places a heavy focus on the “classroom” aspect of outdoor education, it’s a methodology that places equal emphasis on character development and intellect before entering the field.
Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education (AORE) is the only one of these three that doesn’t lead its own trips, focusing instead on connecting like-minded people with others in the field and conducting research. “AORE is the premiere organization dedicated to serving the needs of outdoor recreation and educational professionals. AORE members are students, professionals, organizations, and vendors.” (Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education, 2017). One of the current research projects being funded by AORE is “Bridging the Gap: Examining the Effects of Short-Term Adventure-Based Programs in College Environments.” (Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education, 2017), though many of AORE’s research efforts go towardsunderstanding the broader field of outdoor recreation.
Though the majority of the literature I’ve come across concludes that outdoor education programs are largely beneficial, there are some critical voices mixed in. Because the field of research is relatively new and the scope of modern outdoor education programs is rather limited, some researchers argue that research thus far is inconclusive (Bell 2008, Neil 2002, 2008).
To further this critique, it has been emphasized that not all outdoor education programs are created equal (Neill, 2002, 2008). The effectiveness of outdoor education as a tool for growth depends entirely on the design of the program and how it monitors its impact. “Unfortunately, most outdoor education programs do not conduct systematic, rigorous evaluations of program effectiveness, nor are the methodologies of various outdoor education programs well described and available for public dissemination (Neill, 2002, 2008).” To contrast this criticism, it’s also been acknowledged that while the current understanding of the impact of outdoor education on self is small to medium, the positive impact is noticeably growing as time goes on and programs improve (Neill, 2002, 2008). This highlights the importance of the thorough and consistent evaluation methods that organizations like Outward Bound, NOLS, and AORE are designing and implementing to understand outdoor education, but it also shows the need for similar evaluation methods conducted by outside groups to provide an objective perspective on the topic.
Data for this study has been collected from nine current and graduated students from Southern Oregon University who are/have participated in either Outdoor Program trips or Outdoor Adventure Leadership classes or both as well as SOU OP and OAL staff. This is a case-study approach using semi-structured interviews as a primary form of data collection and participant observation and visual ethnography as additional sources of information.
To understand the current form of Southern Oregon University’s approach to outdoor education, through the Outdoor Program (OP), the Outdoor Adventure Leadership (OAL) major and minor, and the Outdoor Adventure and Expedition Leadership (OAEL) masters program, it must first be understood how they have evolved over time.
Unsurprisingly, the history of these programs is muddled at best. The Outdoor Program in particular has no official records of its trips or other history. The closest thing the current director can access in the way of history is the outdated equipment that would no longer pass the safety regulations of the industry. Its only recently that university level outdoor programs have begun to record their educational efforts, but that is something that requires both time and money, things not always readily available to such programs. Even more out of the realm of available opportunity is the ability to evaluate outdoor programs. Willie Long, SOU’s OP director, claims the ability to evaluate his program would be invaluable, but would take money and systems that simply aren’t there.
For the Outdoor Adventure Education major and minor, there is slightly more traceable history, though still shockingly little organization to it. Though not the first of its kind in the United States, SOU has taken its outdoor major to new heights. With constant development, particularly within the past five to ten years, SOU’s Outdoor Adventure Leadership major is recognized as leading the industry. With the emergence of the Outdoor Adventure and Expedition Leadership masters program, which isthe first of its kind, SOU makes for an excellent case-study.
Through nine semi-structured interviews, six reoccurring themes immediately emerged with varying emphasis. These themes in order of emphasis are: confidence, theory to practice, soft skills, general knowledge, stress relief, and hard skills. Confidence was heavily stressed by all of the participants, each one claiming their involvement in outdoor recreation as a direct source of developing confidence. Just under confidence is the idea of theory to practice, that is, the ability to study a theory and then immediately apply it in a real-world scenario. This is largely in opposition to many traditional university majors, where it can take years to apply knowledge in the field. Next was soft skills, these are things such as communication, group dynamics,
Order of Emphasis
Practice to Theory
leadership skills, personal responsibility, patience, advocating for one’s self and others, and self reflection. Each of the participants mentioned more than half of these soft skills at some point in their interview. All participants mentioned gaining a general knowledge of various environmental subjects such as environmental science and stewardship through their interactions with the outdoors. Perhaps the most unsurprising theme that emerged was the idea of stress relief. Each participant described this feeling in a slightly different way, but all lead back to the general category of stress relief. Finally, participants emphasized the hard skills they gained through an outdoor adventure education. These are the technical skills of various activities; mountain biking, kayaking, skiing, backpacking, rock climbing, etc. But with these specific hard skills, organizational skills were also commonly mentioned.
All of these themes are notably transferable into everyday life, and though they answer the first research question, they don’t answer the second. With a second round of coding, this time with a focus on Southern Oregon University’s role, three more themes emerged. Six of the nine participants have comparable outdoor adventure education experience in other locations, such as other schools, camps, or programs. These themes are student leadership, engaged staff, emphasis on education. Student leadership is a factor that both the OP and OAL pride themselves on. Students are given large amounts of responsibility on trips and the Outdoor Program in particular has a student mentorship program that builds student leaders over time and eventually allows them to design and lead trips. Having an engaged staff is unsurprisingly emphasized as a factor in SOU’s success. This is no different from any other avenue of learning. An engaged and helpful staff is more likely to produce engaged and helpful students. Finally, all the participants talked about the emphasis the SOU Outdoor Program and OAL put on education, both in the field and out of it. It isn’t enough to just learn the skills necessary for an activity, the questions of why and how must be answered as well. This practice draws in many teachings about environmental science, social and environmental impact, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and many more.
*See Appendices 1 & 2 & 3 to read semi-structured interview questions.
Ultimately, due to the personal nature of this research, it would need to be repeated many times between many similar programs across the country before a solid and reliable claim could be made. With such a small sample of participants from a relatively small university, this research is not generalizable, but it is an encouraging start.
This case-study of Southern Oregon University’s current and former students emphasizes the importance and beneficial nature of an outdoor adventure based education. With the obvious themes that emerged throughout the length of this research, both those about personal and professional growth and those about SOU’s strengths in outdoor adventure education, the findings of this study can be easily dissected and digested for further research.
Semi-structured interview questions for current students
Semi-structured interview questions for graduated students
Is there anything you think is important to add?
Semi-structured interview questions for SOU Faculty
Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education. (2017). AORE. Retrieved November 2017, from aore.org
Attarian, A. (2001). Trends in Outdoor Adventure Education. Journal of Experiential Education.
Bell, B. J. (2008). Student involvement: Critical concerns of outdoor orientation programs. Journal of Experiential Education.
Berman, D. S.-B. (2005). Positive psychology and outdoor education. Journal of Experiential Education.
Burt, O. R. (1971). Estimation of net social benefits from outdoor recreation. Econometrica: Journal of the Econometric Society.
Cordell, H. K. (1995). Long-term outdoor recreation participation trends. In Proceedings of the Fourth International Outdoor Recreation Tourism Trends Symposium and the 1995 National Recreation Resource Planning Conference, University of Minnesota.
Cordell, H. K. (2008). The latest trends in nature-based outdoor recreation.
Flather, C. H. (1995). Outdoor recreation: historical and anticipated trends. Wildlife and recreationists: coexistence through management and research.
National Outdoor Leadership School. (2017). NOLS. Retrieved November 2017, from nols.edu
Neill, J. T. (2002, 2008). Does outdoor education really work? A summary of recent meta‐analyses. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education.
Outdoor Industry Association. (2016, November). President Obama Signs Rec Act into Law. Retrieved November 2017, from https://outdoorindustry.org/article/policy-blog-senate-votes-to-count-outdoor-recreation-economy-as-part-of-u-s-gdp/
Outward Bound. (2017). Outward Education Programs. Retrieved November 2017, from outwardbound.org
Priest, S. (1986). Redefining outdoor education: A matter of many relationships. The Journal of Environmental Education.
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Wight, P. A. (1996). North American ecotourists: Market profile and trip characteristics. Journal of Travel Research.
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