WVPB Staff Published

Outdoor Education Exposes West Virginia Youth To Wild and Wonderful Opportunities

A student wearing a tie-dye sweater and a white helmet rides a bicycle through a forest. He is followed by another student, also wearing a white helmet and white sweater, as well as an adult in a short sleeved t-shirt and a lime-green helmet.
Two sixth graders are followed by a Science Adventure School outdoor education guide as they put their mountain biking skills to the test in Coopers Rock State Forest on Oct. 19, 2023. They spent the morning learning about the bikes, then finally got to try them out on the Roadside Trail.
Maddie Swecker

By Maddie Swecker 

The audio above originally aired in the Jan. 2, 2024 episode of West Virginia Morning. WVPB reporter Chris Schulz spoke with student Maddie Swecker to discuss this story.

When Ali Jeney first saw a 6th grader transform from quiet and shy to the star of his class, she knew something was working. Jeney is the director of Science Adventure School (SAS), and she says she sees this happen every week. 

SAS is a week-long science adventure camp at the Summit Bechtel Reserve between Fayetteville and Beckley. It is designed for West Virginia’s 6th graders, and Jeney said students come to camp introverted and lonely and leave feeling like they belong with their classmates and at home in West Virginia. 

This feeling is not created solely through time in the outdoors, but through a carefully planned and executed outdoor curriculum involving learning and playing.

“People call us ‘the camp’ a lot,” Jeney said. “And although we’re outdoors, I wish people could see more than a year that went into designing up to the pilot. This is such a carefully designed program.” 

SAS hits on two major areas that improve learning for children: a new environment and a feeling of belonging. Instructors guide students through various adventure activities such as mountain biking and archery, then teach them the science behind the sports. The camp is mainly funded by private donors.  

These activities are lots of fun for the students, and the playful aspect of this curriculum is by no means an accident according to Jeney. 

“Play is very purposeful,” she said. “You play to energize, to introduce and break down barriers. You play for a lot of reasons that are critical to experiential and outdoor education.”

Anna Herchl, environmental educator at SAS, said she has seen firsthand how kids fall in love with learning. 

“One of my favorite memories from camp is when we took them out and taught them about the PH level of water.” she said. “Later on in the week, I had a little girl ask me while we were canoeing, ‘What do you think the PH level of this water is Anna?’ and honestly, hearing that just makes me so excited that they are taking away a new appreciation for science.”

Getting kids outside in the Mountain State not only is a great way to experience growth and learning, but also creates a sense of belonging and connection to the natural world that surrounds them. 

Kirk Mitchell, outdoor education guide at SAS, has seen kids come to camp wishing to live somewhere else and leave being excited about their home in West Virginia. 

“A lot of kids in this state feel like they want to leave when they graduate because they don’t want to do the same things as their parents,” he said. “By showing them how cool this state is through adventure sports and science, we can help them to realize that they have all that right in their backyard. They can be scientists in this state and not have to follow the blue collar work that many West Virginians have traditionally worked in.” 

A student wearing yellow shirt and red cap stands next to another student wearing a dark blue UnderArmour sweater. Both are looking at compound bows in their hands. Behind them can be seen more students, as well as trees.
Two sixth graders load arrows for archery during the Science Adventure School at the WVU Outdoor Education Center near Coopers Rock State Forest on Oct. 24, 2023.

Sixth graders are transitioning from elementary school into middle school, and programs like SAS help them to process that change. But, there are plenty of schools around West Virginia that are aiming to get the same effects on younger children.

The Monongalia Forest School is an outdoor school aimed at children aged 3-7 and their families. With meetings two times a week, their goal is to get children out into nature to gain confidence and fall in love with the outdoors while learning practical skills. The sessions are never canceled due to cold weather, only dangerous weather stops these kids. 

Katie Switzer teaches 3–7-year-olds at the Monongalia Forest School. She believes that getting children outdoors is not only beneficial for them but also for their parents. By getting parents involved in education, they can then have the ability to help their children to continue to grow and learn outside of the classroom in non-traditional settings, like a hiking trail.

“When I first started going outdoors with my kids, it felt overwhelming because I didn’t know where to go and I didn’t know what activities to do,” Switzer said. “I tried to incorporate that into the program by making these hikes, trail maps, giving trail maps for the hikes and getting them (the families) comfortable so that they feel like, ‘Hey we can go out here on our own and we’re able to do it.’”  

Outdoor education is not a new concept in West Virginia. Outward Bound (OB) is an international organization that has offered outdoor education programs in the Dolly Sods Wilderness since 1986 through its Chesapeake Bay School. Former Outward Bound instructor Jacob Rex has seen first-hand the positive impact that can come from outdoor learning.

“Outward Bound employs a curriculum that, at its core, has remained unchanged for almost a century,” he said. “It builds character in young people that fundamentally changes their lives. I know dozens of stories of people, who are now in their 60s, recounting their OB trip as one of the best experiences they’ve had in their life. The medium the wilderness provides to the human brain is unequivocal in catalyzing growth in mind, body, and spirit.”

More and more outdoor schools are popping up around the state and nation each year. This could be attributed to promising research done on the topic.

Researchers for a 2019 article in Frontiers in Psychology conducted a meta-analysis of dozens of peer reviewed articles and studies about learning outside and concluded that nature-based learning worked better for disadvantaged students, inspired interest in students who were not engaged and provided a more open atmosphere for learning and forming social ties.  

Not only is outdoor education getting kids excited about learning, but it is also combating the mental health crisis that young people have been facing. 

The mental health crisis in the state of West Virginia was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 3000 kids went to WVU Medicine emergency rooms in 2022 seeking mental health care, a 62 percent increase from previous years. At SAS, Jeney said kids go from being lonely to being connected to their classmates. “They’re so happy because sometimes they don’t even know other students know their name, then they leave Science Adventure School with a cohort of 15 people who know about them and love them and care about them and they know it.” 

Educators like Jeney and Switzer believe the answer to some of the problems kids today are facing, like the mental health crisis, may lie in outdoor education.

SAS puts a lot of effort into making sure that every group creates a welcoming environment that is conducive to learning and having fun. Just having this support and being in a new environment can boost the confidence of students and push them to become more curious and rediscover a love for learning. 

One of the largest criticisms of outdoor education is that there is not enough research showing the long-term effects that it has on children who go through it. Jeney is a huge advocate that every 6th grader in West Virginia should get to experience outdoor education regardless. 

“One of my favorites (memories) is a student who was the ‘mathlete’ if you will, one might call a ‘nerd’ and who absolutely smoked the big cool basketball team member and became a legend to his teammates. For the first time, (he was) feeling appreciated and loved and like people were looking up to him. He helped his whole team get to the top of the climbing wall,” she said. “It’s moments like that that are like, there is no question. I don’t need the research. I don’t need to see 10 years of data to see that this program is changing these kids. It’s changing them in the best ways in four days and you just would never believe it unless you could see it.”

A student wearing a brown shirt kneels and puts up two peace signs next to an archery target with arrows sticking out of it. Three of the arrows are in a tight grouping in the target's blue ring, with a fourth arrow just above in the black. The archery setup is in a heavily forested area.
A 6th grade student at SAS poses proudly next to the arrows he just shot into a target at the WVU Outdoor Education Center on Oct. 19, 2023. All of his fellow classmates cheered him on as he almost shot a bullseye.