Several upper elementary school students in the rural Pacific Northwest are about to set off on a three-day learning adventure. Their classroom is the great outdoors.
Their school supplies include snowshoes, hiking boots and research equipment. Their instructors are expert outdoorspeople excited to help students explore and appreciate their surroundings through E-STEM (environmental education, science, technology, engineering and math).
Selkirk Outdoor Leadership and Education—a 501(c)(3)nonprofit headquartered in Sandpoint, Idaho—isn’t a standard school experience.
“We know from research that experiential education is one of the most powerful ways for kids to learn,” says Joy Jansen, SOLE education adviser, who earned her doctorate and master’s in education. “It opens the door for kids who struggle to learn. Experiential education lights up the brain. It engages all of our senses. This is what kids need.”
Dennison Webb, SOLE founder and executive director, helped shape the experience. He jokes he’s been preparing for the role since he was 7 years old.
“We go into the classroom and orient students and educators to the experience on the first day,” he says. “Then we get them into the field for an entire day. We wrap it up and go back to the classroom and synthesize the data. They get a very comprehensive experience. A lot of programs don’t do that.”
Dennison says the environmental science, technology, engineering and math coursework is evidence-based.
The husband-and-wife team of Joy and Dennison is keen on experiential and outdoor education, and teaching lessons they hope stick with participants for life.
“For us, it’s really about learning comprehension,” Dennison says. “It’s not just a one-and-done type of experience. We want to know what these kids are doing after their SOLE experience. How are they taking that knowledge back into their classroom or their community?”
It’s not just about the newfound knowledge of the outdoors. Students are taken out of their comfort zones and grouped with others. They may never have been up a mountain before or strapped on snowshoes.
While SOLE does provide structured lesson plans and curriculum, a lot of leadership development happens by going through the process.
Dennison says students face new challenges with coaching and a foundation.
“Leadership isn’t always being out front being vivacious and an extrovert,” Joy says. “It also can come in a quiet way. When an individual finds leadership within themselves, they find that confidence to be able to lead others.”
Getting Wild in Winter
The SnowSchool experience—SOLE’s flagship program—is about more than being active outside. Joy and Dennison say experiential education teaches students a sense of place and belonging.
“We’re educating them about the flora and fauna—the natural environment, the systems within them and how they work in their area,” Dennison says. “The idea is that these kiddos will step back from the experience and have a greater appreciation for where they live, and they’re more informed as citizens. Ideally, they’re stewards of their community and its environment.”
Dennison says SOLE has a unique geographic region and provides affordable access to outdoor experiences.
“At our local schools, over 50% of the kids are in poverty daily,” he says. “We encourage having these experiences where they learn outdoor skills that can help them pursue future outdoor recreation on their own. It’s really important to offer this to local kids and to do it right.
“You learn fundamental skills such as how to keep warm and dry in an outdoor setting, land navigation and all the skills that will allow them to be successful whether they’re going out for an elk hunt or backpacking with friends. These are skills they can use for the rest of their lives.”
Joy says a highlight of the program is students take what they learned on the first day and apply the techniques the second day, when they head outdoors for the experience.
“The kids go in and actually hop in the snow pit and use all the tools,” she says. “They are doing snow pit profiles just like a forecaster would do. They collect data using the tools, then they follow that up with charts and talking about the data. The kids are living the situation, and all of their data goes into a national database. It gives them purpose.”
Dennison says students do the science and draw their own conclusions.
“If they want to say climate change is happening, that’s great, but defend your answer,” he says. “Show me how you came to that. Over 80% of our fresh water comes from snowpack, so it’s pretty cool to watch kids make those connections.”
Joy says she values that the learning applies locally.
“They’re understanding why our snow is so important—the water we drink, the water we bathe in, the water that is our substance and that goes into our watershed,” she says. “They have an understanding of how everything is connected and why our snow is so important. We all think snow is beautiful, but what is snow? It’s not just snow anymore. The experience gives snow purpose. It gives it life.”
Dennison says the community, staff and seven-member board of directors have worked to make SOLE a success since its inception 10 years ago. In that time, more than 7,600 rural youth have experienced a SOLE program. Approximately half of the participants qualify as low income.
Dennison estimates instructors have provided more than 60,000 hours of programming.
The SOLE team views the program as multidisciplinary, with instruction about stewardship. Being a good citizen is being a steward of the land, Dennison notes.
Every fifth grade class in the area gets a chance to experience the outdoors as a group, but programs are offered to the general public, too.
Students learn the importance of taking care of where they live.
Joy says learning is about more than just understanding things scientifically, but developing a relationship with snow and other students, regardless of previous experiences.
“One of my fondest memories is of a student named Nick,” Dennison says. “Nick had physical disabilities that often limited his ability to participate in field trips with his peers. Our field instructor partnered with the Lake Pend Orielle School District Special Education Department to develop accommodations so he could participate in the experience.”
Nick traveled on a sled with his peers to the snow pit areas, fully participating in the outdoor science and fieldwork portions of the program.
“It was so impactful for him that the following fall, he went to his former teacher on day one and again thanked her for helping him be part of the program,” Dennison says. “I think this captures the impact of our programs well. They are not designed as a one-and-done fun outdoor experience. They are intentionally and purposefully designed to leave a lasting impact.”
For more information about Selkirk Outdoor Leadership and Education, visit soleexperiences.org. Per-student costs range from $45 to $200, depending on program length and topic.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of this magazine, is taking readers on a yearlong journey, The Learning Curve, highlighting success stories in rural education in challenging times. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest