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Immersed in the Green Scene

Immersed in the Green Scene

By Robby Dodd

Alexis was knee deep in a cold, murky stream, staring down intently, her hands gliding through the swirling water as it slipped over the tops of her high rubber boots. “I’m going to find something we can all study,” she said, dipping a small specimen jar into the water.

Almost two years after that November day, she is standing at her locker talking with friends about that experiment and the rest of the three-day outdoor education experience she had as an 8th grader at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, MD, a high-poverty school in an increasingly diverse, urbanized county. She speaks as excitedly about the experience as she might about what she saw on Facebook or on American Idol the previous night. “It was so different,” she says, beaming. “It was the best thing that happened to me in school.”

The program Alexis attended at the Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center makes it possible for nearly 9,000 students—and many of their teachers—from 120 sixth-grade teams to spend three days and two nights at the center. Another 11,000 students, primarily from elementary schools, visit for a day.

Into the Wild

Alexis summed up many of the attributes that make the outdoor education program so beloved. First, it’s the students’ response—the excitement they feel and the lasting memories of the experience. Years afterward, ask five participants about the trip and probably four of them they will tell you it was a highlight of their K–12 public education experience. Second, it’s about exploring together—that Alexis was going to find “something we can all study.” Third, it’s about what was taking place when the students examined the creatures in the water: learning in a unique atmosphere, a carefully chosen outdoor environment where each student could be safely independent. Alexis wasn’t aware of it, but she also became a leader that weekend, a role she was capable of but had not assumed, as she thoughtfully guided others through the water experiment and other activities.

Advocates of outdoor education cite those and many other reasons why such programs should have hearty support from schools and school communities. Ask an educator who has been involved or any of the researchers who have studied outdoor education and they will rattle off several more benefits for students: learning while doing; being independent; learning to live and work with others; studying a variety of subjects in new ways in hands-on settings; studying the environment in a crucial time to do so; gaining confidence, interpersonal skills, and self esteem; and even just seeing their teacher in a different, more-personal setting.

There is a host of research on the value of outdoor education. The Outdoor Education Research and Evaluation Center (www.wilderdom.com/research.php), OutdoorEd.com (www.outdoored.com), and the Association for Experiential Education (www.aee.org) all offer page after page of research on the topic and provide links to hundreds of sources for information about the benefits of such education. Over and over, researchers have found that outdoor education is effective, although they are quick to point out that the programs must be constructed and carried out with care.

Transformative Experience

“The outdoors is just a great place for learning,” said Laurie C. Jenkins, supervisor of the Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center (the Smith Center) in Montgomery County, MD. “The natural world has such value, and here they are connected to it.” The Smith Center is a good example of an effective outdoor education program, and Jenkins’ pride in it echoes the thoughts of Alexis: “One of the best strategies for ensuring that our students know about and care for the environment is to get them out into it. And students love the program—they simply don’t want to go home.”

Legacy of Learning

In Montgomery County, it works, and participants are effusive in their praise. Jordan is a handsome, quiet, and successful 8th grader whose world is skateboarding. He also remembers the visit to the Smith Center as the highlight of middle school. “I felt different after that time,” he said, unable to exactly pinpoint how he had evolved.

“I love outdoor ed. It just changes kids,” said Pat Tozzi, the head of the math department at Argyle. “I’ve seen students attend and come back, and they are just different,” he added, citing several examples of students who struggled behaviorally or academically but thrived at the Smith Center.

“Some of the at-risk students are stars at the Smith Center, which is a complete turnaround from their day-to-day experiences at school,” said Geoff Edgar, an assistant principal and a veteran in Montgomery County Schools. “It often transfers to their everyday school setting when they return, especially when their teachers see what they can do in this setting outside of school and interact with them.”

Cambrian Powell is now a high school English teacher, but she spent years as a middle school teacher planning and attending outdoor ed. The year that Alexis and Jordan participated, Powell’s team—including some veterans who had perhaps grown a bit cynical about their students’ willingness to learn—buzzed about the program from their first meeting of the school year. Long after it was over, they talked proudly about the ways that kids had improved academically or behaviorally because of the experience. Powell recalls students often becoming enthused about new subjects upon their return, talking uncharacteristically about animals, stream life, or phases of the moon.

Tricked Into Learning

Joe Howard, a cofounder of the Smith Center,  remembers how  one young man summed up the learning experience. “His letter to his parents went on and on about all the fun he was having, then took on a different tone and described what he was learning. ‘We are learning a lot here, but it’s fun too. That’s how they teach you. They trick you so you don’t know that it’s happening.’”

Psychologist Carl Rogers proposed that there are two types of learning, cognitive and experiential, and that the later offers greater value because it includes personal involvement and teaches while exciting the student. It takes place in an atmosphere that fosters our natural propensity to want to learn—a desire that is sometimes undernourished in a traditional classroom. Howard, for example, described a wildflower identification activity from the early 1960s in which some students were given the names of certain flowers outright and another group was asked a series of open-ended questions that focused on observation and specific flower attributes. Students who were told the names of the flowers before observing them had a retention rate of 20% versus 75% for students who did not know their names but were questioned about their specific characteristics.

“We really felt it was better to teach science in the real world, with kids doing things,” said Alan Dodd, a cofounder of the Smith Center. He noted that early on, the program was designed to mix earth science with an appreciation of the outdoors, but that it has expanded to cover a variety of other topics and develop a number of other skills and qualities in students. The inclination of some opponents and observers during the early years was to describe outdoor education as a “camp” program, but Howard and Dodd contended that outdoor education was a complex learning experience for students that combines highly skilled teaching with the unpredictability of the outdoors. “We focused on things already in the curriculum…but [teaching] it better so kids learned more,” Howard said.           

Howard and Dodd felt that it was important for the classroom teachers to lead the program, making it part of the curriculum and fostering new relationships between students and their teachers. They are proud to point out that many of the instructional strategies and curricular approaches that they incorporated in the 1950s and ’60s eventually became part of the educational norm, both in the classroom and in the wild. Such practices as team teaching, cooperative grouping, interdisciplinary instruction, and divergent questioning were staples of the program then and widely accepted best practices now.

Students at the Smith Center spend time studying ecosystems—in a stream, in a forest, and in an open field. Engaging activities give them a chance to explore the diverse resources at the center. They learn about history from a gristmill, an old graveyard, and other historical spots. They use a map and compass and today identify native trees with GPS systems and dichotomous guides. They learn about the Chesapeake Bay watershed and work on a project to mitigate damage to it and its feeder streams. A predator and prey activity—one students often recall—teaches them the roles of animals in the food chain and about their interdependence. A confidence course, replete with climbing walls and other challenging kinesthetic activities, develops interpersonal communication, problem-solving skills, and teamwork skills. Even the meals are different: personal responsibility is emphasized such that when students are in the dining hall at the Smith Center, their behavior is nothing like it is in a school cafeteria. 

This is an important part of their education that clearly has value. It has so many facets that work well together to give students an experience they won’t often get and will never forget.

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Robby Dodd is a principal at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, MD, and the son of Smith Center founder Alan Dodd.

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Legacy of Learning

Outdoor education has a rich, vibrant history in this country, although now the expense and liability mean that it, along with other nontraditional educational experiences, is receiving more budgetary scrutiny. In Montgomery County, MD, it still enjoys strong support—most likely because of the profound legacy of the Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center and its immeasurable impact on the lives of children.

The Smith Center was developed in suburban Washington, DC, in the early 1960s, the brainchild of Alan Dodd, a teacher and district administrator, and Joe Howard, a teacher and principal who loved the outdoors and even now can be found walking up a busy six-lane highway picking up litter.

In the 1930s, Dodd attended a progressive school led by a principal who was a disciple of John Dewey. It was there that his early ideas about outdoor education began to take shape as he and his classmates worked and learned in an outdoor classroom and earned freedom cards that they could use to self-select learning activities. Dodd became the principal at Parkside at the age of 27 and an elementary science supervisor shortly thereafter.

Howard was raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and as an avid outdoorsman, became a dogged conservationist at the same time he was honing his teaching and leadership skills. He was the principal of a small rural school, teaching classes, driving a bus, and making time to develop an outdoor classroom where he taught lessons about the natural world.

Their paths crossed in the 50s, and against the backdrop of the fastest growing school system in the nation, the baby boom, and the launching of Sputnik, Dodd and Howard embarked on one of the cutting-edge curriculum reform movements of the 1960s. Howard was the programmatic and charismatic genius behind outdoor education, and Dodd’s adept political and administrative acumen helped pave the way for the systemwide adoption of outdoor education in Montgomery County.

Eventually, 10 acres of parkland was purchased in a beautiful wooded area between two lakes and near Rock Creek that become the Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center. Today the program continues to thrive, having morphed into an outdoor environmental education program that helps meet Maryland’s first-in-the nation requirement that school districts have such a program. Approximately 9,000 students from 120 sixth-grade teams spend three days and two nights at the center; another 11,000 students, primarily from elementary schools, visit for a day.

Dodd and Howard have left a vibrant legacy of learning that is gaining in relevance at the start of the 21st century.

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