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Learning beyond four walls

How Sea to Sky schools are pushing the boundaries of the traditional classroom to redefine outdoor education

Whether it's an hour-long nature walk, a two-day camping trip or a semester-long course, it's fair to say most students will have had some type of brush with outdoor education by the time they enter the real world.

On its surface, the experiences students stand to gain from outdoor ed might seem limited to simple wilderness skills. Learning how to survive in nature is no doubt important, particularly in the rugged landscape of the Sea to Sky, but in reality, the list of benefits the great outdoors can offer students runs far deeper.

But before we begin, let's consider how we define outdoor education. In Sea-to-Sky schools, the scope of nature-based education as it's currently known is changing. This region is at the forefront of a powerful shift towards outdoor learning; a concept that reaches past traditional adventure-based instruction to incorporate experiential, hands-on learning in a way that allows teachers steeped in a wide variety of academic subjects to make greater use of their natural surroundings.

So, as students head back to class for another school year, Pique looks at how schools in the Sea to Sky are putting down the textbooks and actively embracing — and helping redefine — a new educational model that goes beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Taking outdoor ed to the next level

When it comes to outdoor recreation, the Sea to Sky doesn't do anything halfway — and its schools are no exception.

At Whistler Secondary School (WSS), longtime teacher and avid mountaineer Mitch Sulkers is responsible for creating the school's outdoor recreation leadership program. In the years since WSS first opened its doors, the three-credit program has grown so popular that two different sessions are now offered over the course of the school year; one each semester.

Although B.C. students have long been able to earn a single physical education credit under provincial curriculum, many local schools, including WSS, have expanded that one class into all-encompassing, semester-long programs that completely immerse students in wilderness culture.

During the program, Grade 11 and 12 students venture outside of the classroom for snowshoeing, ski touring and winter camping trips, including avalanche safety training and certification, as well as hiking, backpacking and canoeing in the warmer months. The program is designed to introduce students to skills that will, by course's end, equip them to plan and lead a backcountry excursion with minimal supervision.

However, "the program was never put in place with the idea that somebody who took it was necessarily going to go into (backcountry) guiding," Sulkers says. "It was very much about developing a young person's skills through a process of imagining what it would be possible to do, determining what skills and knowledge and material would be necessary to make it happen, then making a plan, going out there and executing the plan and coming back and reflecting on that and trying to improve that plan. That's why we have it in a semester format, so students have many, many opportunities to personalize a system that works for them in terms of problem solving."

Up the road at Pemberton Secondary School, teacher Boyd Hargitt has been striving for similar outcomes since taking over the school's outdoor recreation program in 2005. That program is for Grade 10 students and runs only during the second semester. It takes up students' entire schedules and earns them four credits: in physical education, outdoor program elective, planning and English.

Hargitt believes running the program over a full semester is crucial to its success. "I couldn't do it any other way," he says. "We do so much that we need the time, for one, and we're out of the school about 25 or so full days. If all their courses weren't tied into the outdoor program, that would mean that they'd have to miss other courses."

In addition to safety training on topics like first aid and avalanche safety, excursions include an overnight winter camping trip, during which students construct snow shelters, and, in the spring, a weeklong ocean kayaking trip.

For Hargitt, the peripheral benefits that accompany these experiences are what the program's truly about. "The wilderness skills are really great, but a person could get those at any time in their life," he says. "I think that at this age, the Grade 10 age, teamwork and responsibility and accountability and just figuring stuff out is super important. Just running around in the wilderness with 24 of your friends, in my opinion, has huge educational and developmental benefits."

It's a sentiment shared by the faculty of Coast Mountain Academy (CMA), a private institution in Squamish. While both Pemberton and Whistler Secondary Schools' programs are offered as electives, outdoor education is mandatory for all Coast Mountain students.

For one Grade 11 group two years ago, that included a gruelling 400-kilometre, eight-day paddling trip down the Yukon River under the glare of the midnight sun. While the trip taught students important interpersonal skills, it also promoted self-reliance. "They're making all their own food; they're setting up their own tents. Even when it's pouring rain, you still have to set up the tent and make yourself food," explains Brett Logan, head of CMA's outdoor experiential program. "You really do have to learn how to be an independent being, which is excellent preparation for university in our eyes."

The rise of experiential learning

Outdoor education isn't all about just spending a night under the stars anymore.

CMA is just one local example of a school that has incorporated hands-on, outdoor education into its more traditional academic pursuits. In fact, experiential learning is high on the school's list of foundational priorities. "We make an effort to have experiential learning involved in all of the classes that we teach," explains Mike Slinger, CMA's head of school. "Whether it's math or science or social studies, we try to bring it to life somehow. A good percentage of the time, that means we go outdoors."

For Logan, that means viewing traditional outdoor excursions through an academic lens, and vice versa. "We take kids outside and try to put them into real-life scenarios where they can apply what the curriculum is saying in the classroom," he says. "It's no secret that we have an amazing backyard and that can be an excellent classroom venue. Why read a science textbook on geology when you can go into Garibaldi Park and actually see some of that stuff firsthand? We're covering the curriculum but in a way that's of much more interest to the students and also builds upon some of their other skillsets."

CMA students might visit Joffre Lakes to study water flow rate, or hike up to Wedgemount Lake, for example, where students are given the option, say, to calculate the size of the glacier or create a voice-narrated slideshow showing how to produce higher-quality ice photography. "We try to have an academic focus on each one of our trips... We're not only just learning camp craft and building teamwork and resiliency to the weather, but also really gaining an appreciation for the world that we're surrounded by," Logan says.

This concept of outdoor learning is clearly gathering steam among educators.

Dr. Hartley Banack, an outdoor environmental education program lecturer in the University of British Columbia's (UBC) department of curriculum and pedagogy, works with teachers preparing to enter the profession, as well as those seeking post-graduate diplomas or master's degrees specializing in outdoor environmental education. He also organizes Wild About Vancouver, a free outdoor education festival that offers practical ways to get children outdoors more regularly.

While CMA's approach infuses academics into more traditional forms of outdoor ed, excursions into the backcountry, as Banack explains, aren't necessary to facilitating outdoor learning. Banack's work focuses more on a growing shift towards learning that takes place on or in the immediate vicinity of school grounds. "What we're trying to do is increase the amount of time spent outdoors for teachers during learning (in any of the traditional curricular areas)... A big focus is around the learning component itself, and the experiential nature of learning through outdoor experiences," he says.

Banack has observed a massive increase in the number of teachers seeking post-graduate diplomas in the discipline, citing a 400-per-cent rise in interest in the UBC program since 2014.

It's easy to see why the method is so popular: while outdoor learning often yields a range of benefits to health and wellness, including improved physical, mental and cognitive health, it also spurns positive effects on students' engagement and knowledge retainment.

"Experiential learning — practical, hands-on, applicable learning done outdoors, in and around your school — has a much stickier impact on learners than science experiments done in a lab or book-learning that's disconnected from practicality," Banack explains.

Experiential learning also benefits students' critical thinking, according to Phillip Clarke, district principal of learning services for the Sea to Sky School District (SD48). Nature's wide expanse also offers a similarly vast scope of possibilities for educators, Clarke adds. Those possibilities could include anything from a Kindergarten class gathering pinecones during a numeracy lesson, to high-school students studying environmental impacts on a local waterway. "There's quite a range we can use the outdoors for," he says. "It's more about education outdoors than it is about outdoor education."

To that end, incorporating this expanded view of outdoor learning is a growing priority for the district, explains Lisa McCullough, superintendent of schools for SD48. "Outdoor education used to be about going out and exploring," she says. "There's still a lot of interest in that from our students and even that is growing, but it's expanded to learning outdoors in what we would call 'place-based learning.'"

Although this shifting notion of place may be an emerging trend in modern education, McCullough points out that outdoor learning isn't exactly a new concept to the region. "It's a very Aboriginal way of knowing, being and doing," she explains. "It's acknowledging that you can't truly understand a local culture if you don't know the land."

(A call to the Xit'olacw Community School in Mount Currie was not returned by deadline.)

That improved sense of understanding is just as important at the post-secondary level, explains James Byrne, interim vice-president and chief academic officer at Quest University in Squamish. It's why Quest actively encourages its students to go out in the field. "We want to make sure (our students) get a broad set of experiences and the tools to really understand the world they live in, meaning both the natural world and their cultural, political, historical world," he says. "It's important that these things don't just stop once you get to postsecondary school — because, 'Now that I'm studying history, I don't need to go outside again because it's all in our books.' That's not the kind of education that we're trying to give."

A new kind of classroom

Although these spaces aren't required in order to facilitate outdoor learning, part of the growing emphasis on nature-based education includes the creation of outdoor classrooms.

At Signal Hill Elementary School in Pemberton, pupils now enjoy the new outdoor learning area that resulted from a student-driven initiative. The nearly five-year-long process saw students join forces with the school's Parent Advisory Council to present the board of education with a series of recommendations.

"They've been able to put in a new playground but also a new outdoor school where they can sit around on big rocks outside and learn together in (a) circle, like our local Lil'wat (First) Nation," McCullough explains. "That was something they were able to raise money for and get support from the board of education to do. It's a lot more authenticity and looking at learning in the classroom in a different way."

Myrtle Philip Community School students will also soon be able to enjoy a dedicated outdoor learning space. Conceptualized by the school's own Parent Advisory Council, the outdoor classroom is currently under construction.

Once complete, it will include a covered structure, a walkway connecting the school's entrances and a series of paving stones that form a circle in the middle of the school's community garden beds (more on those later.) "(Classes will) have the option of working outside in any weather," explains Myrtle Philip parent Christy Craig. "It was a huge undertaking, and it's going to be really amazing for those students — they're lucky."

Craig says she'd like to see her kids' classes use the area for everything from music lessons to silent reading to art, or even measuring surrounding plants as part of their math classes. "I hope it's used all the time, for everything," she says.

Craig began noticing the benefits of hands-on outdoor learning after her son's teacher began incorporating it into his class' daily lessons. "Every day the class would go out and measure their plants. The knowledge that he retained and how he learned, in Grade 1, what measurements were and how to add them up to, for example, get the height of their plant (was amazing). I mean, he knew how much everyone's plants grew every single day," Craig recalls. "That hands-on learning; they really get it and retain the knowledge. It's so much more meaningful than measuring a line on a piece of paper."

The Sea-to-Sky advantage

Incorporating outdoor or place-based learning into modern education isn't unique to B.C.'s West Coast. The programs already mentioned are just a handful of examples of local approaches that are part of a global shift towards more innovative teaching methods.

But with everything from oceans and freshwater lakes to old-growth forests and alpine terrain all within a stone's throw, the area's unique landscape certainly provides more opportunities for learners to take advantage of.

"There's an enormous amount that our students can do and experience right here in the Sea to Sky corridor," Byrne says. Although Quest is often misidentified as an outdoor school thanks to its picturesque location and distinct curricular focus, it's nonetheless, "very committed to the idea that place is a central feature of our educational model."

While Pemberton Secondary's Hargitt says he's noticed a shift in the way students are learning "across the board," he adds that areas beyond the Sea to Sky are perhaps a bit slower to embrace outdoor education because their environment isn't quite as conducive to the concept. "In all fairness, we live in such an incredible area, this would be a far harder gig to pull off in other parts that don't have such easy access to what really is real wilderness," he says. "In Pemberton, (we take) a 30-, 40-minute bus ride and we're at 4,500 feet up the Duffey. I totally admit, if I was trying to teach this program (elsewhere), it becomes logistically so much more challenging."

Growing gardeners

At Myrtle Philip, that new outdoor learning space also revolves around several existing community garden beds; a program spearheaded by Craig.

In spring 2016, the elementary school students built garden beds, filled them with soil and planted a variety of seeds, thanks to a grant Craig received. When the students returned in the fall, they harvested potatoes, carrots, celery, beets, pumpkins, zucchini, garlic, tomatoes, onion, leeks, kale, herbs and flowers. They prepared soup from the veggies they grew and served it to hundreds of classmates, teachers and parent volunteers. The program is ongoing, with another harvest set for this fall.

"Everything grows through the summer, and then in the fall, it's totally the students. Each class gets in there and harvests... it's all very hands-on," Craig says. "Even when the garden boxes were built, it was all the students. They used power tools, they built the garden boxes, they shoveled all the soil."

Each of the school's 14 classes takes responsibility for a garden box, and take care of the planting, maintenance and harvesting. But the project has yielded more than just tasty produce, according to Craig.

"It just warms my heart when I'm at the school, and the students are showing their parents their plants that are growing," she says. "Just the engagement and the pride that they take in showing what they've accomplished makes it all worthwhile."

Fostering sustainable thinkers

Craig also hopes the garden project helps plant a different kind of seed within students. She hopes the project opens students' eyes to the many benefits of growing and eating sustainably, ditching the processed, plastic-wrapped snacks in favour of whole, locally grown produce. "Maybe they don't feel that immediate connection to the environment, but it resonates through them and I just hope over time they get the bigger picture," she says.

According to Banack, Craig's already on the right track.

It's been shown that when students spend time outdoors, they often gain a greater appreciation for the environment and a subsequent desire to take care of it. The environmental benefits of outdoor learning "relate more to both our ethics around environmental and sustainability concerns, and then the practices of those," Banack explains. "There's a fair amount of literature out there that documents that time spent in nature as a younger person increases your environmental and positive behaviours as an older person."

An environmentally minded view is something Sulkers also hopes his students take away from their time spent in the WSS outdoor rec leadership program. "In our society today, it is possible for people to feel as if somehow they exist outside of our biosphere, but that's not the case," he says. "I think it's important that people have an attachment, and that they have a certain amount of training for safety's sake, but also to take care of the environment that takes care of us."

Through outdoor education, "we have the opportunity to demonstrate what is ethical use, and that does have a trickle-down effect," he adds.

Creating community connections

That trickle-down effect is already making its mark on the Sea to Sky. With much of the population highly invested in the outdoors, fostering hands-on, nature-based learning can come with lasting positive impacts on the community.

As part of WSS' outdoor ed program, students use the skills they learn to give back to their neighbours, Sulkers explains. "Most of the programs in our district do exactly the same thing; They might work on hiking trails or mountain bike trails — just doing some kind of service to the recreational community," he says.

In elementary schools, the shift towards hands-on education also allows students to apply their knowledge in a way that emphasizes philanthropy.

In Whistler, one Grade 4 and 5 class project saw students from Spring Creek Community School investigate the garbage that was clogging up local lakes. They visited each lake, collected all the trash they could find, and compiled their findings into a study that was presented to municipal council.

"They were able to show all the graphs and objectively (identify) plastic bags as the No. 1 source of garbage on the waterfront in Whistler," McCullough explains. "That's what we mean by real-world projects and this notion of sustainability and contributing. They were able to recommend to (municipal) council to make motions around plastic bags ... and debated the topic with municipal council. Our kids were able to advise, provide really great data and think critically about what they would recommend the (town) do about this."

Byrne explains how Quest U works to instil that sense of civic responsibility in all its students. "We're not just training (Quest) students to get jobs or to be able to go to grad school — even though we do all of that stuff too. We're training students to be good citizens and good members of their communities," he says. "To do that, they need more than just classroom, academic skills. They also need to know how to apply what they're learning in the classroom to everyday situations, whether that's something like going out into the field in an ecology class or a class that's exploring volunteer work."

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