Sitting in the balmy fall afternoon sun, Hannah Ryde, a junior at Tufts University, beams as she talks about her experience during her alternative high school semester at the Maine Coast Semester program through the Chewonki Foundation.

“We spent a lot of time learning through hands on stuff. [For example], the first day of math we had this rope tied to a tree and we had to pull on the rope and then let it go and we had a video camera to track the oscillation of the tree based on how much force we had pulled,” Ryde enthusiastically said.

Ryde is among thousands of students that have been impacted by experiential education, or learning outside of the classroom. Increasing numbers of high school-aged students, typically juniors or seniors, make the decision to either take a semester off from their regular academic institution or go to an alternative high school altogether. There are programs across the country, from the High Mountain Institute (HMI) in Leadville, Colorado to the myriad of ski academies in Vermont. Although there are plenty of alternative high school semester programs that do not use the outdoors as a medium for education, there are a plurality of organizations that are founded upon experience in the outdoors for learning.

One of the major unifying concepts of an experiential approach to education is kinesthetic learning. Daniel O’Brien, Head of School at HMI, explained the importance of the experiential learning process. “Learning doesn’t always happen within four walls of classroom,” O’Brien said.

2013 Jul 18: Marketing photographs for the High Mountain Institute in Leadville, CO. ©Trevor Brown Photography
Science class at HMI. Credit: Trevor Brown Photography

O’Brien emphasized that education and outdoor adventure go hand-in-hand. “What we do on wilderness expeditions improves performance in the classroom,” O’Brien said. The former history teacher explained that students have a far better understanding of plate tectonics or the more nuanced messages behind John Krakauer’s Into the Wild when they are learning about it while hiking in Utah or the Rocky Mountains, instead of from their textbook.

O’Brien said that unlike other educational programs, HMI and other experiential learning organizations put real pressure on their students. He explained that students are placed in scenarios where if they mess up—on a multi-week wilderness expedition, for example—the consequences are real. However, he added, when students achieve, as they often do, the feeling of accomplishment is so empowering.

“That’s what education should all be about… HMI cares about producing good adults,” O’Brien said. The Head of School argued that in an age in which high school students are better prepared than ever for academic achievement and college education, they lack communication and problem-solving skills.

“Being outside requires real engagement with other beings,” O’Brien explained. A structured experiential learning environment like HMI prepares students for the 21st century, not the world our grandparents lived in, O’Brien added.

Ryde emphasized that the smaller class size and kinesthetic approach gave her an appreciation for different education systems. “Most of the things you learn about the outdoors are hands-on and you can use…[it’s] easier to teach about outdoors things and make them relevant,” Ryde said.

At the Maine Coast Semester program, students learn about the natural history of Maine’s ecosystems and the wildlife that inhabit its coastal regions, Ryde explained. The curriculum involves weekly field trips and other hands-on activities. Students also learn about sustainable farming and agricultural practices while working on Chewonki’s on-campus farm.

Chewonki students learn important skills via farm work. Credit: Arild Finne Nybø
Chewonki students learn important skills through farm work. Credit: Arild Finne Nybø

Ryde added that the faculty and staff at Chewonki tailor each student’s academic experience. “They listened to your input a lot and helped shape your own experience,” Ryde said.

Ryde explained that at Chewonki, she was able to talk about the college application process in a more meaningful way, one that which approaches the process holistically. She added that she felt that she was better able to grasp the concepts and material from her classes—the same classes she was taking at her public school in Concord, Massachusetts. Although the learning process at Chewonki is slower than that of a public or private school, Ryde explained that the students went back to their regular high schools with a stronger understanding of the material than their peers.

However, Ryde said that one of the most impactful experiences with her alternative high school semester was her living situation. She explained that students lived together in cabins heated by a wood-fire stove. The six to eight high school juniors or seniors were responsible for keeping their cabin heated, even in the dead of winter. “Right off the bat that was something we had to do… [This kind of independence] is really illustrative of Chewonki… they put a lot of trust in you,” Ryde said.

Thomas Calcagni, a senior at the Winter Sports School in Park City, Utah, understands the importance of this alternative educational experience. “Winter Sports School is for winter sports athletes… [school is in session] from April to November in order to have whole winter season off to focus on our sports,” Calcagni said.

A freestyle skier, the high school senior has been attending alternative high school since his freshman year. Calcagni explained that after his sophomore year, he left the Killington Mountain School in Vermont to attend the Winter Sports School out in Utah, a school that during his sophomore year had approximately 40 students, eight of which consisted of his grade. Since his sophomore year, when the school became publicly chartered, The Winter Sports School has expanded to 120 students with 40 per grade.

Calcagni skiing. Credit: Thomas Calcagni
Calcagni skiing. Credit: Thomas Calcagni

“[The] teachers are amazing; they are there to support you and achieve your skiing goals,” Calcagni said. He emphasized that due to the small class size, he has created personal relationships with the staff and faculty at the Winter Sports School. “[The] relationships you make with teachers actually inspire you to learn,” Calcagni added.

Calcagni explained that his alternative high school experience has provided him with important teamwork, problem-solving and interpersonal skills that will benefit him as a young adult.

Ryde emphasized the importance of her experiential education on her daily life as an outdoorswoman. “I was able to take ownership of my passion for the outdoors… at Chewonki I was able to make it my thing,” Ryde said.

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Written by Aaron Pomerance

Professional adventurer, writer, a bit of a dreamer

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