Designing College & University Outdoor Leadership Recreation, Academic, & Co-curricular Programs
Since 1962 when Outward Bound first introduced wilderness adventure programing to United States and the world in the mountains of Colorado, the field has grown exponentially. It is now commonplace to find successful wilderness recreation programs in K-12 schools, summer camps, military bases, and city and state parks. The use of outdoor adventure programs for therapeutic reasons has become it's own industry. And, enrollment in undergraduate and graduate degrees programs in outdoor recreation, education, and therapy is on the upswing.
Within the college/university systems there are three types of outdoor programs:
Training outdoor leaders within a college/university setting requires a multidisciplinary approach that does not fit well into a standard quarter/semester format due to the type of terrain and time required teach outdoor skills. The purpose of this article is to briefly discuss the design of each program type, list their pros and cons, and provide a conceptual template for those training students to staff some of their programs.
Regardless of the program type instructor skills can be organized into three separate categories, each with their own topics and progressions.
A fourth skill set, administrative skills, is needed to address all aspects of a programs design and management. Effective administrators are typically staff trainers with business, management, and leadership training and experience.
Each administrator-again, regardless of the program type-will need to go through a design process similar to that described below:
College and University outdoor recreation programs include Outdoor Orientation Programs (OOP) for incoming students (usually freshman), weekend, and break trips. The programs may be subcontracted to an outside organization or run by professional staff, graduate assistants, or students, or a combination of all three. If any programs are to be run by students, there needs to be an effective training, assessment, and evaluation progression in place.
The training and mastery of most outdoor skills takes multiple years...and mastery is required before a student can learn how to teach a skill or safely lead an outdoor trip. In most college recreation programs it takes a minimum of two years to acquire basic skill mastery for top-rope climbing, canoeing, whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking, backpacking, etc.; more technical or higher risk outdoor activities require additional time. While skill training and the opportunity for mastery can occur during the school year, instructor training needs to occur during the summer break.
All staff trainings are by invitation only.
College and university academic programs focusing on outdoor leadership should ideally include one or more immersion semesters. Immersion semesters provide the extended field time necessary to develop mastery of specific outdoor skills simply not possible within the normal quarter/semester format. The initial immersion semester should be at least 50 days in length (75-90 is preferable), taught during the summer between the second and third (freshman & sophomore years), and focus on training basic outdoor skills on both land and water. A second immersion semester the spring or summer of the third (junior) year should focus on teaching site management, and include one or more short practicums; it may also introduce more advanced skills. All technical skills should conform to established certification standards (AMGA/PCIA for climbing, ACA for water sports, ACCT for challenge courses, AIRE for avalanche/snow pack assessment, and Leave No Trace). The goal for college/university programming is NOT necessarily to certify students but to provide the necessary training and development that will prepare students for certification should the job they are interested in require them. That said, Wilderness First Aid certification should be required prior (or as part of) the initial immersion semester and the Wilderness First Responder certification should be required prior to the second immersion semester, graduation, or instructing/leading any trips. Undergraduate programs should consider offering credit for an extended skill expedition.
Immersion Semester 1
Academic course work should include a core curriculum that meets general education requirements and, if possible, designed with outdoor leadership in mind. Once the general education requirements have been met, students should focus on those courses that will further their specific focus: community/college recreations programs, character education, outdoor therapy, camp management, etc. While a relevant business education is vital for starting or managing a small business, it's important to bear in mind that effective outdoor program administrators MUST first master the instructor and trainer skill sets. Consider:
Advanced degrees (masters and doctorate) should focus on training staff trainers, outdoor program design and management, working with for-profit and not-for-profit boards and other related administrative topics (development, marketing, funding scholarships, advanced finance, human resources, grant writing, understanding GSA and government procurement, etc.).
Although sometimes difficult to achieve due to internal politics and rules, well-designed cocurricular program are perhaps the most through way to train outdoor leaders within a college/university setting because they offer instruction combined with the opportunity to lead trips. Simple cocurricular programs give academic credit for "x" number of skill trainings during the school year and for summer staff trainings. Academic coursework should support the human and educational instructor skill sets. More advanced cocurricular programs typically include one to four immersion semesters. The actual number depend on level of desired skill (outdoor, human, educational) mastery upon graduation and are substituted for weekend and break ± summer staff/instructor trainings. Immersion semester programs may be taught by rotating academic faculty, a combination of academic faculty and rec staff, or subcontracted. As staff are trained to teach and manage outdoor skill activities, they become the assistants and instructors for the university's weekend and break recreation trips.
Immersion semesters (or quarters) offer students the opportunity to learn and master outdoor skills in a field setting. The power of this type of learning should not be underestimated, especially when coordinated with academic course work and leading recreation trips. Once administrators decide that the practical and academic value of an immersion semester should be part of their outdoor leadership degree, they must decide if they should staff it with "in-house" professors or subcontract it.
In-house Immersion Semester
Subcontracted Immersion Semester
Download pdf file of the full article including conceptual templates for summer recreation staff trainings.
Check out our Effective Outdoor Program Design & Management Workshops.
Want more information on wilderness medicine ? Take or sponsor one of our wilderness medicine courses. Guides and expedition leaders should consider taking our Wilderness First Responder course.
Looking for a reliable medical field reference for yourself or your staff? Consider consider purchasing one of our print or digital handbooks; our digital handbook apps are available in English, Spanish, and Japanese. Updates are free for life. A digital SOAP note app is also available.
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