Looking Out: Enhancing Student Engagement Through Outdoor Education

Phenix Johnson, Outside Writer for SUU, Southern Utah University / Colleges of Distinction »

But we’re human, after all. We live through our senses. One of the best ways to get students engaged is to take them outside. By offering students rich outdoor experiences as an alternative to their usual media habits, Southern Utah University is enhancing their learning experience and keeping them engaged with their studies.

Why Go Outside?

If you were born in the 70’s or earlier, you probably spent more time outside as a kid than most Millennials. Perhaps you’d go out on adventures with friends, ride bikes, explore the woods, or build forts. Whatever you happened to do outside, it’s more likely that you learned to rely on your own imagination and sense of play for entertainment.

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Dr. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, became aware of this trend soon after his own child asked: “Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?” As he researched this shift, he found a correlated spike in cases of ADD, anxiety, depression and obesity in the younger generations, a phenomenon he’s dubbed “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” According to him, the time older generations spent in nature was an essential part of their development and it’s increasingly less available to younger generations.

According to Dr. Louv, young people who have been raised without these experiences in nature still have a deep need for it, whether they recognize it or not. By taking students outdoors to have rich educational experiences, SUU works to fulfill those needs. In fact, experiences like that could greatly improve their overall well-being. As Kelly Goonan, program coordinator for our Outdoor Recreation in Parks and Tourism department points out, there are many benefits adults stand to gain from the outdoors. “Time spent outdoors helps reduce stress, increases one’s sense of emotional well-being, encourages better physical health, and rejuvenates us and allows us to be more productive and happy in other areas of life.”

But beyond the health benefits, there is a practical educational benefit as well.  By taking students outside, SUU helps them ground the abstract concepts from the classroom in reality. In this way, students are engaged through their sensory experiences, rather than just their intellect.

Back to Nature

Located within a day’s drive of approximately 20 National and State Parks and Recreation Areas, SUU is in the perfect location to combine natural settings with education. The many programs and classes create deeper connections and instill a lifelong love of learning in  graduates. If students wish, they can even earn a bachelor’s degree in Outdoor Recreation.

Then, there’s the Geology of National Parks class, which features a field trip to Zion National Park. Upon learning the geological significance of the site, students are given the opportunity to stand right in front of the towering cliffs and canyon walls of the park. This first-hand experience is far more likely to stay in the student’s memory than if it were taught in a white-walled classroom.

Some students go even further, fully immersing themselves in the outdoors for a semester. Through the study abroad program, students can enroll in a Semester in the Parks where they will live, work, and study all within Utah’s famous Bryce Canyon National Park.  Students embark on a once-in-a-lifetime experience and leave at the end of the semester with a wealth of knowledge, experience, and outdoor skills that they can apply to the rest of their lives – in both the personal and professional realm. The courses themselves are interdisciplinary weaving together outdoor recreation, geology, biology, history, and criminal justice.

No matter what they choose as their major, students can participate in free weekly trips with SUU Outdoors, a department on campus that is dedicated to providing meaningful adventures for students. These trips give them the chance to climb, cave, bike, backpack, and much more. SUU Outdoors also rents out gear to students and the community, providing even more opportunity to push oneself, face fears, and build self-confidence.

On special occasions, the entire school will go outdoors together. For example, as part of the centennial celebration of the National Park System, SUU held “Day in the Parks”. Classes were cancelled and a record-breaking 4,500 students went on field trips to explore our public lands. The day was spent paddleboarding, painting, writing, mountain biking, climbing, filming, and even dancing. These trips sent out students who wouldn’t normally go out on their own, potentially opening their eyes to all the beauty in southern Utah.

At SUU, implementing these nature-based programs is a vital part of a student’s education and transition into post-university life. For college students eager to have the adventures they missed in childhood, these programs offer an unforgettable experience, and often a deepened relationship with America’s great outdoors. It is this relationship helps students cope with the stress of university life, break technology habits, and emerge with a passion to inspire others. SUU and universities like it are discovering that fostering this connection between young adults and nature creates students who are not only more engaged in the classroom, but with the world around them as well.

Southern Utah University

Located in Cedar City, Utah, SUU has a safe, residential campus with approximately 8,800 students. Because of an educational partnership with the National Park Service, students can work and play in the awe-inspiring wonderlands of southern Utah. Due to the proximity and educational opportunities, SUU is branded the University of the Parks. Students cheer on the athletic teams who play in the Big Sky Conference, join (or launch) any of the 160 clubs and organizations, and take advantage of the outdoor adventures that surround campus. With 140 undergraduate and 19 graduate programs, SUU professors help students explore, engage, and excel inside and outside the classroom. With graduation rates 10 points higher than the national average, SUU’s graduates go on to top companies, start their own businesses, or attend the best graduate schools in the country.
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