Where the Money Goes: Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures

September 11, 2014 | Comment

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When you think of school, what comes to mind? You probably think of a traditional classroom setting with desks and a teacher lecturing in front of students.

What if education went beyond the classroom and placed students in their local communities as a backdrop to learning?

That’s the principle of place-based education.

Since 2008, more than 60,000 students from the Twin Cities metro area have had the opportunity to learn in a non-traditional setting such as Fort Snelling State Park in St. Paul, where they have experienced meaningful outdoor education through the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures (UWCA) program.

Since 2010, Lottery proceeds helped benefit UWCA with $2.1 million in grants from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. The Trust Fund grants have helped promote the program, purchase canoes, expand the place-based teacher professional development workshop and expand the program outside the metro area.

A primary driver of UWCA is Wilderness Inquiry, a Minneapolis-based non-profit that promotes adventures in the wilderness for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities.

Wilderness Inquiry initially focused on promoting wilderness access for teens and adults with physical or developmental disabilities. But when it integrated with UWCA in 2008, the program expanded to include underserved urban youth.

In addition to Wilderness Inquiry, UWCA is a collaborative partnership between local school districts, state and federal agencies, and many non-profit organizations.  

Chad Dayton, director of programs and partner relations for Wilderness Inquiry, said the program’s “collective impact partnership model” is what makes UWCA so unique. “Together, our goal is to provide opportunities during the summer and school year for ultimately every school student in the seven-county metro area.”

The UWCA educational program exposes K–12 students to a variety of activities, such as fishing, water quality testing, geocaching, hiking and history lessons.

But the highlight for students is the half-day canoe trip which, according to Dayton, “is the original core of the program.”

Some of the Trust Fund money was used to purchase locally-made cedar-style stripped canoes.

“They are built for Superior surf so they are extremely seaworthy,” said Dayton. “So after about two minutes, all of those nerves have turned into smiles.”

Each boat is like a “contained classroom,” accommodating up to 8 students, one outdoor educator, and one teacher.

“You can touch on and revisit any number of subjects that come up in conversation or by design of the teacher. It’s a great team-building experience,” says Dayton.

“The boat acquisition was huge,” added Julie Storck, the education program manager at Wilderness Inquiry. “The boats allow us to do this at scale and also in a safe and reliable way so the kids and teachers who are brand new to the water feel comfortable getting on a river like the Mississippi.”

Storck said the hands-on learning experience makes the academic components applicable to their everyday life. However, as a former teacher, Storck thinks the most critical aspect of the program is the social and emotional experience it creates for students.

“You see students who have a lot of behavioral issues in a classroom setting and don’t really connect with what you do … and then they go out in a canoe and they are transformed into a leadership role,” she explained. “That is their element and suddenly their behavior, which can sometimes be viewed as outrageous or loud, is acceptable and promoted. To have their peers and their teachers view them in that light and see them in a different way is so important and is something that does transfer back to the classroom afterward.”

Trust Fund money has also helped expand the place-based professional development workshop for teachers.

“It’s a great place for teachers to network and share ideas about place-based education,” Storck explained. “They are able to think about how to connect standards that they are required to teach in their classrooms to make it more hands on and meaningful for the kids.”

After sitting down with several teachers who participated in a week-long professional development workshop at Fort Snelling State Park in St. Paul, they reflected on their experiences and discussed how they will incorporate them into their individual curriculums.

Erik, a teacher with Minneapolis Public Schools, said the idea to teach kids in a hands-on environment is exactly what is needed to create an impact because it engages them with things that are right in their community.

“Things like examining our local drinking water— it’s easier to make students realize the importance of this when we can bring them to the place rather than just standing in front of them and telling them about it,” he said.

Meagan, with St. Paul Public Schools, said this workshop has been unlike any that she experienced. “Oftentimes when you go to a professional development seminar, they say, ‘You should teach by not lecturing so let’s talk about that for the next six hours.’ Rarely have I been in an environment in which the professional development is a reflection on how I can teach in the classroom and that is pretty cool,” she said.

The teachers all agree that instruction outside the classroom not only has educational benefits but recreational benefits as well.

Startling statistics have shown that kids on average spend 30 minutes outdoors each week. Many students have a fear of the outdoors and this experience helps take away some of that. One goal as teachers is to give students access to the outdoors.

With the success of UWCA, Trust Fund dollars have helped expand the program to students outside the metro area—to cities such as Mankato, Hastings and Red Wing.

The biggest accomplishment, according to Dayton, is that the money from the Trust Fund has helped put Minnesota at the national forefront of academically place-based education.  

“We’ve received attention from federal agencies and other partners all over the country,” said Dayton. “In this year, we will replicate portions of what we do here in 24 cities around the county and touch another 10,000 kids that way.”

For the latest news about Wilderness Inquiry and UWCA Like them on Facebook.

What do you think about Lottery proceeds helping create a place-based education system in the state? Leave us a comment below.

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