The Colgate Scene
July 2005

The great outdoors
Outdoor ed fosters hands-on skills, personal growth, and a strong sense of place

On a PE ice climbing class trip to Rexford Falls in Sherburne, Adam Dale '98, assistant director of outdoor education, and Liz Marr '07 belay Meghan Meehan '08 (top left) and Tara Garland '07 (top right) while Courtney Devereaux '08 and Marisa Bricca '08 encourage the climbers. [Photos by Jimmy Maritz '05]

Adventures in Colgate's back yard
Backyard Adventures bring together students, faculty, staff, and community members

Commitment and fun
Staff training from one "Outdoor Eddie's" perspective

It's a Friday afternoon in mid-May at Base Camp, the squat brown cabin nestled behind Lineberry Natatorium and the heating plant. Three students are flopped on couches on the far end of the knotty pine-walled great room, unwinding after returning from a rock climbing trip. Another is surfing the web at the desk near the door. Two more are fixing a snack in the kitchen.

Base Camp's comfortable, rustic atmosphere reflects the program it is home to. Outdoor education, with its motto "learn to teach, teach to learn," provides people at Colgate -- and from the surrounding area -- a chance to rediscover the natural world while learning about themselves in a community setting.

Operating under the auspices of OE are several outing-based programs, numerous physical education courses, Colgate facilities, and community outreach programs.

Josh and Molly Ames '91 Baker, co-directors since 1995, and assistant directors Adam Dale '98 and Abby Rowe run the extensive program as a collaborative team. Colgate's is unlike any other college or university outdoor education program in the country.

What makes the OE program unique is also what makes it special for those involved -- the 45 to 50 members of the student staff who undergo a rigorous seven-month training program that prepares them to teach others the skills they have acquired. A strong sense of community has developed among those fondly referred to as "Outdoor Eddies," who come from surprisingly varied backgrounds and levels of experience.

"You'd think there would be an outdoor ed stereotype, but there isn't," said staffer Jess Winans '06. We have everyone from fraternity and sorority members to girly girls to the always-outdoorsy. Some of my best friends are people whom I might not have known otherwise, but we have this common interest in the outdoors."

"There's a certain level of involvement in each others' lives, a camaraderie," said Rowe. "People really seem to enjoy spending time with each other, so outings are not just about learning something, but also spending time with their friends."

And, Josh Baker notes, "One important thing we've grown to realize is that Molly and I and Adam and Abby are a part of the community as well."

Outdoor education offerings
While the Bakers train the staff, lead trips, and manage the overall program, Rowe, whose specialty is paddling, and Dale, who focuses on climbing skills, split up the duties of overseeing the student staff and managing the PE and Backyard Adventures programs, as well as advising related student groups such as the Outdoor Connections living/learning residence for first-year students. The variety of programs offered by OE provides a range of involvement levels and time commitment options, from people wanting intensive training in a particular skill, to those wanting just a taste of the outdoors, a brief change of pace.

Wilderness Adventure is the popular weeklong camping trip for incoming first-year students. Groups of six to eight students and two OE staff members carry their own food and gear while hiking, canoeing, or kayaking through the Adirondacks. In addition to the outdoors experience, the students form friendships even before first-year orientation begins. Last August 138 participated in 19 trips.

Physical education (PE) courses count toward the university's PE credit requirement and include canoeing, hiking, kayaking, camping, outdoor cooking, caving, rock climbing, ice climbing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, telemark skiing, trail crew, survival, and backpacking. Staff members can tailor the course content to the skill level of the students in the group; 422 students participated in 55 courses in 2004-2005.

Angert Family Climbing Wall, on the third floor of Huntington Gym, is maintained and supervised by outdoor ed. More than 800 people, many instructed by OE staffers, dug in their toes and fingers to scale the heights last year.

Backyard Adventures are short outings for members of the faculty, staff, and Hamilton community as well as students. Last year 192 people participated in 40 trips.

Outdoor Equipment Rental Center offers camping and cooking gear, snowshoes, skis, and climbing gear for a nominal fee. There were more than 900 rentals last year.

Hamilton Outdoor Group offers outreach activities for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at Hamilton Central School.

Summer outdoor programs for the Office of Undergraduate Studies program for incoming first-year students as well as children at Camp Fiver in Poolville are led by two OE staffers.

Green Summit, organized by co-director Molly Baker, is an annual gathering of students, faculty, staff, and administrators to address campus environmental impact issues.

Base Camp Series and Banff Mountain Film Festival bring world-renowned mountaineers and Adirondack personalities, as well as the famed mountaineering movies, to campus.

Kate Rufe '05 and Cam Pittelkow '05 laugh during a break while on a cross-country ski trip.

OE's lifeblood
Each year, 12 to 15 new students go through the training to become OE staffers. The paid position carries a lot of responsibility -- being in charge of a half-dozen 17- and 18-year-olds in the Adirondacks for a week, for example -- so the application process, which can be competitive and includes a written appplication plus an interview, is a serious endeavor.

"While a lot of programs nationwide focus on outdoor leadership, we focus a lot on teaching," said Molly Baker of the staff training. In choosing new recruits, the goal is to have a well-rounded team with a diverse mix of experience, personalities, athletic ability, and technical skills. Only first-years and sophomores are accepted because of the length of time the training takes. The first semester provides hands-on instruction in technical skills and teaching techniques, through trips and outings. The trainees return to campus early in January for more training and a winter camping experience. Then, during the second semester, they shadow other staffers on trips and in PE classes, and spend their spring break completing required Wilderness First Responder training.

The staffers work in co-leader pairs and the job provides opportunities for different kinds of growth, from the practical and physical skills they learn, to developing confidence and leadership ability. Molly proudly describes the transformation that many students go through, coming in perhaps as very shy, but then blossoming as they build self-confidence and strong public speaking and interpersonal skills.

Deb Karpman '05 agrees. "The simple act of being put in that position -- where people who have never been in a backcountry setting are looking to you -- really causes you to step up and to realize that you know so much and that your students are eager to learn from you," she said. "It's an amazing feeling to have a student who minutes before had sworn to you they couldn't do something, accomplish something they thought was impossible."

"I grew in terms of my confidence level and in undertanding how I work with others," said Avery Woods '05, noting that she used the principles of teaching in OE to improve her academic presentations. "In a geography class, I did a presentation on Costa Rica, where I had studied. Instead of just running down the political structure, I brought in props like pictures and got the class engaged in types of food so they could touch and feel and look rather than just listening, could experience what I experienced."

Doug Park '05 remarked that "through being a leader I get to learn a lot about myself and how I interact with the outdoors. I get to better understand other people's feelings towards spending time in the outdoors while figuring out effective methods of improving those feelings."

Jen Leen '08, Mary Gaynin '08, and Eric French '07 watch as Zach Zimmer '07 attempts a bouldering problem at the rock wall

Park's sentiments stem from the principles by which the program operates: an experiential approach where students develop an awareness of where they are, and a respect that guides behaviors and habits that minimize their impact on that place (the Leave No Trace philosophy).

Employing the concept of "landfullness," or place-based learning, outings include activities that help the participants connect with the actual location -- its history, or particular geologic or biologic features, for example. Given the university's rural location and emphasis on research and involvement in upstate New York, it's a perfect setting for the OE program, say the Bakers. Both are Upstate Institute Fellows and have intimate knowledge of the Chenango Valley and Adirondack regions.

"We work to expose students to their surroundings and help them find a personal connection to the landscape," explained Molly, who published a paper on teaching landfullness in the 2005 edition of the seminal journal of outdoor educators, the Journal of Experiential Education.

For example, students who sign up for the Wilderness Adventure trips receive "On the land," a booklet of advance readings. Among others, the readings include an essay by well-known Adirondack writer Elizabeth Folwell and an interview about life in Hamilton from the early- to mid-1900s with Ruth Bash, whose husband Wendall taught sociology at Colgate for many years. Guided trip discussions include questions that ask the students to think of personal experiences that relate to those in the readings, express their opinions of ethical dilemmas presented, and consider what distinguishes certain physical environments such as Hamilton from all others.

"When we lead an activity, we work into it the history of the place we're in," explained OE staffer Eric French '07, "so we're not just enjoying the pretty scenery, we're developing an understanding of, and a respect for, the area we're in."

Andrew Olson '07 practices a kayak roll while Abby Rowe, assistant director, and OE staff member Allison Ewing '08 watch and offer tips.

The outdoors and the classroom
The program's educational mission extends to the academic side as well. Outdoor activities for courses in environmental studies as well as departments such as English and history that incorporate place-based components into their curricula give students real-world exposure to what they are learning in the classroom.

Kira Stevens asked Molly Baker to contribute to her history methodology course that focused on environmental history, using regional situations for case studies. Baker led a hike on which the students were to discover environmental evidence of former land and water use as part of a case study of the Chenango Canal.

"The walk was very successful in opening students' eyes to a new kind of historical evidence," said Stevens. "Some of them used that kind of evidence further in writing papers."

Students have also merged their OE and academic interests on their own. Karpman, for example, took Sociology of Gender after staff training discussions of gender awareness and how gendered expectations play into what happens in an outdoor setting.

"The final paper asked us to create a section of the study of sociology of gender (in addition to what we had already covered . . . the beauty industry, work environments, education, and social movements)." Karpman explained. "I began my research by going back to what had originally piqued my interest: the curriculum for gender awareness in OE. We had to provide a syllabus for our paper of exactly how we would teach the class, and I used this material because I think it is very telling of how we actively `do' masculinity or femininity." This summer, Karpman, who majored in art, is teaching art to high schoolers at Snow Farm in Massachusettts, where she hopes to bring what she learned in OE to that experience as well.

A group of students on an outdoor education excursion rest at their campsite after a long day of cross-country skiing.

Skills for life
Having been involved with OE since its first year of staff training (as an undergraduate), Molly Baker knows literally every OE graduate; and of course, because the network remains strong, when asked for examples of where OE alumni have ended up, she can tick off a seemingly endless stream of names -- and Josh comes in a close second. Like Molly and Dale (who works for the National Outdoor Leadership School during the summer), many OE alumni have continued their involvement professionally, some pursuing graduate-level work as well. Andrea Rongey '00 teaches at the Teton Science Journey School. Six alumni have attended the Teton Science School's professional residency in environmental education and natural history interpretation. Lisa Mayhew '00 was a field instructor at the Keystone Science School in Moscow, Idaho, for three years. Kurt Pusch '02 uses an experiential approach as a schoolteacher in Denver, Colo., and there are many others.

In addition to being paid for their services leading trips and teaching courses, the OE staff members participate in their own outings that help expand their skills in specific areas, such as climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, dogsledding in Minnesota, and kayaking in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence.

The pinnacle event for graduating seniors is a trip with Josh Baker to climb Mt. Rainier. This year, Woods and four others joined him.

"There's this looming physical challenge that you want to take on and it's exciting to do it with people you've been camping and doing other stuff with forever," she said. Although after the ascent they had to abort their attempt to summit Rainier at the last minute due to an impending snowstorm and unstable snowpack conditions, Woods said that in typical OE fashion it became another learning opportunity. "We got to see how Josh thought through the decision, and he was totally right because two people died on the mountain the day after."

Of her participation in OE overall, Woods spoke for many of her peers when she summed it up simply: "It really made my Colgate experience."

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