This summer 16 educators from across the country gathered at Southern for the Teacher's Institute for Outdoor Education, a two-week intensive course that brings participants one step closer to completing their master's degree. While the curriculum had the diverse group hiking, canoeing, caving, and mountain climbing, one of the most hands-on learning experiences involved a life and death scenario not listed in anyone’s catalog course description.
A master’s degree in education with an emphasis in outdoor education is designed for teachers who wish to incorporate God’s book of nature into their everyday classroom studies. The intensive courses are three, two-week long programs spread out over three summer semesters. Originally intended only for teachers in the Southern Union, this year the program was opened up to all regions and included graduate students employed at both private and public schools.
Amanda Duncan, an art teacher at Oakwood Middle School in Cleveland, Tennessee, learned about the program from a brochure she found when shopping at Rock Creek Outfitters, an independent outdoor retailer based in Chattanooga.
“I knew I wanted my master’s degree, but I had yet to find a program that interested me,” Duncan said. “The way this degree integrates the outdoors into the everyday classroom was intriguing.”
Duncan, who knew very little about Southern before attending the program, left very impressed with the experience.
“Before attending the program, all I knew about Southern was that it was an Adventist school in Collegedale,” Duncan said. “But by the end of the two weeks I absolutely loved it. Everyone there was more than welcoming. I was never made to feel like an outsider.”
Teachers spent the first week of the program at Southern’s campus and the surrounding area, learning the skills they would need when outdoors, and how they could apply those skills in their individual classrooms. They participated in team building activities at Southern’s rope course, learned how to build canoes at a state park, and observed kids being taught using the techniques they were learning.
The group spent the second week of the program hiking and camping on the John Muir Trail, canoeing on the Hiawassee River, climbing Star Mountain, and sleeping in a cave.
According to Doug Tilstra, director of outdoor education at Southern, the course is not about skill, but exposure.
“You will not be an expert at rock-climbing or canoeing at the end of the course, but you will have experienced many different things in the outdoors,” Tilstra said. “This is great, because when you go back and discuss things with your students you will be able to relate.”
The idea is for teachers to grow in their understanding of how to use the outdoors as their classroom, a practice they witnessed firsthand during the course. For example, while spending the night in the cave, they were taught a physics lesson with a laser pointer and mirrors.
Teachers experienced an unexpected lesson in water safety while camping on the Hiawassee. One of the participants noticed a young girl struggling in the water and acted quickly to save her from drowning. After the girl had been safely returned to her group – about 35 children from a local summer camp – the teachers discussed the events and learned the proper way to safely handle a group of kids that age in the outdoors.
“I participated in and witnessed things this summer that I have never been a part of before,” said Pamela Arner, Kindergarten teacher at Sligo Adventist School in Takoma Park, Maryland. “The program definitely challenged me.”
While the two-week intensive courses are a major part of the program, teachers pursuing the degree are still required to complete other projects and assignments during the year. In addition to the intensives, there are both fall and spring courses that offer similar curriculum. All courses offer rolling enrollment, and travel to different outdoor areas each year.
For more information about this versatile master’s degree, visit Southern’s outdoor education website.