What is Adventure Education?

You are backpacking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with ten other students and your faculty instructors, on the fifth day of a ten-day segment of your Wilderness Expedition course. Or, you are paddling a sea kayak off the coast of Baja, Mexico. Or, you are on the second pitch of a multi-pitch rock climb, proud of your success in leading the previous 5.8 pitch, using skills you are learning in your Lead Climbing course.

Now picture this. You are in the University library researching the philosophies of John Dewey and Kurt Hahn for a 15-page paper for your Adventure Education Philosophy and Theory course. Your professor has told the class that you will learn about experiential education by largely creating this course, and you must first understand the theoretical foundations that have shaped experiential education. You have been asked to describe what you need to learn to be an informed adventure educator, and you will held accountable for demonstrating what you’ve learned.

And put yourself in this picture. You are in a mock courtroom, arguing for the defense of your client, an outdoor program that has had two of its clients die of injuries sustained in a mountaineering accident. For your testimony, you have had to read hundreds of pages about legal issues, risk management, accreditation standards, and the ethics of risk for your Organization and Administration of Adventure Education course this semester.

Do you like what you see?

Are you drawn to active learning in the outdoors, but also in the library and the classroom? All of the above pictures, and more, are what you will experience as an Adventure Education major at Plymouth State University. Your “classroom” will sometimes be the top of a mountain. Other times your classroom will have four walls. The common thread is that you will be involved in your learning.

You will be challenged, sometimes physically, often emotionally, and many times intellectually, by faculty who are supportive of you, and passionate about the outdoors and adventure education, faculty who have years of experience practicing what they teach-in the mountains, on the rivers, and in the classroom.

As an Adventure Education student, you are expected to be very involved. It’s impossible to quietly sit in the back of the classroom, not having prepared for the day’s assignment. We notice, because we want you to succeed. Much of your learning-in the mountains and in the classroom-is collaborative. Your and your classmates’ commitment and preparation will directly affect your own success. You will often make presentations to your classmates and lead portions of wilderness expeditions, as you learn how to be an effective experiential instructor by actually instructing. If you do this well, you will reap the rewards of being a contributing member of a supportive, interdependent learning community.

Much is expected of the Adventure Education student. You need to be intellectually curious, committed to involvement, and interested in maturing into a self-motivated learner. You will probably need to devote more time to this major than you might expect, partly because much of your course work occurs over weekends, and some courses have backcountry components over spring break or after classes formally conclude in May. Much of your learning will also occur through a good deal of reading, as well as independent and collaborative research and class presentations.

This level of commitment to your education is just like the commitment adventure educators devote to their profession. When you graduate you may work with youth or adults in a position that does not know the eight-to-five schedule. You may be on call 24/7 for long periods of time. You will likely be helping to change lives, including your own. This is exciting to some, and too much for others.

The expectations are high, but the rewards can be transformative. As an Adventure Education major, you will have opportunities to actively and intellectually gain competence in your skills, clarification of your values, and confidence in your leadership abilities. And, of course, you can expect to have fun. You are likely to form a community with faculty and other students who learn and play together in the outdoors.

So, is this still the picture you have of yourself as an Adventure Education major at Plymouth State University? If so, great! If, however, this is not the picture you see yourself in, you’ve also made a good choice.

So, what is Adventure Education?

Adventure Education uses human-powered outdoor pursuits to help people learn about interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships.

So, as an Adventure Education major, you will be leading backpacking expeditions, facilitating a ropes course, climbing rocks, ascending alpine summits, and paddling rivers for three reasons-first to learn the professional and technical skills to operate competently and safely in these environments, second to learn how to instruct others in these adventure activities, and third to learn how to frame these experiences so that your clients and students grow personally and professionally.

Adventure education is different than guiding and outdoor recreation. Your reflection on the outdoor experience is a necessary precursor to learning. You will learn how to help individuals and groups reflect and learn from their experiences in your Adventure Processing and Facilitation course and in the Adventure Leadership and Instruction course. You will learn how these processes and systems developed, and what kinds of programs utilize them, in your Foundations of Adventure Education course and the Adventure Education Philosophy and Theory course.

Human-powered outdoor pursuits such as backpacking, rock climbing, mountaineering and paddling are aligned with Adventure Education because they require some knowledge, judgment, decision making, and action from the individual or group, who often experience immediate feedback-success and sometimes failure-as the result of their actions and the environment. So, the results are at least partly under their own control. For example, if you begin to slip on an alpine glacier, you and your rope team must execute self-arrest procedures. Successfully stopping the fall is your feedback that you have properly learned some important skills, you knew how to use them, and you made the correct decision of when to use them. Your group discussion back at base camp that evening will likely include reflections about your learning, and maybe even how your growing competence in the mountains can be a metaphor for competencies you might pursue in other unrelated areas of your life, such as at school or work.

Why choose to major in Adventure Education?

You should consider carefully whether or not Adventure Education is the major you want to commit yourself to. The expectations are high, just like they are for professional adventure educators. Here are some points to ponder about your decision.

  1. Consider majoring in Adventure Education if you want to learn a balance of professional technical skills as well as conceptual and interpersonal skills. Courses in rock climbing, wilderness expedition, mountaineering, and whitewater paddling may sound like an exciting manner to obtain a University degree. These courses are exciting, but also demanding. Not just physically-individuals in moderate physical condition should be able to comfortably succeed in these kinds of experiences. They are also demanding intellectually. In most Adventure Education courses, including the technical skills courses, you can expect to have a variety of books to read and papers to write.But if you primarily want to “go climbing for credit,” this is not the major for you. You will soon be out of your element. Adventure Education majors also take a sequence of academic courses focusing on the philosophical foundations, pedagogical skills, group processes, and theoretical models of Adventure Education. Professionals in this field need to not only know what to do in a variety of wilderness situations, some of which can be extreme, but they also need to know why they’re doing it.
  2. Consider majoring in Adventure Education if you can make the time and commitment to be very involved in your learning. Adventure educators typically don’t have 8-to-5 jobs. We are often out 24/7. Similarly, many of the Adventure Education field-based courses meet all afternoon, over weekends, over spring break, after the spring semester ends in May, and at other times that do not match the traditional college schedule. For example, you may have a paddling class or rock climbing class that leaves at 6:00 AM Saturday morning. You need to show up alert, ready to learn, and practice safety. You will often be out days or weeks at a time. Some of this time in the wilderness you will be cold, tired, wet or hungry. This schedule and commitment may not allow you to participate in an athletic team or hold a part-time job some semesters. You will also need to commit to working summer jobs at a camp or outdoor program, in order to accumulate 60 days of experience as a prerequisite for the Adventure Education Internship. If you choose to take the Adventure Education Immersion Semester you will devote an entire semester to a sequence of courses that will have you involved in backcountry wilderness expeditions for up to two weeks at a time.
  3. Consider majoring in Adventure Education if you enjoy continuing your education beyond class.Adventure educators love what they do and have fun doing it, on and off “the job.” Same applies to your academic preparation for the profession. You will find, for example, that completion of the Top Rope Climbing course, in itself, is insufficient to take you to the level to enter the Lead Climbing Course or to successfully pass your Outdoor Skill Clinical course. You need to gain lots of “mileage” in between, climbing on your own with other students and friends. Between the Wilderness Expedition course and the Alpine Mountaineering course, you should be doing lots of mountain hiking and backpacking, so that you develop what is known as a cushion of competence that only experience can provide. Similarly with your Adventure Education theory courses, you can expect to spend two hours outside of class studying and doing homework for every one hour of class time.

Remember, any student admitted to Plymouth State University is potentially capable of succeeding as an Adventure Education major, if you are willing to sustain the commitment of time, academic work, focus, and motivation required. The expectations are high, but so is the level of support. And the rewards can be transformative.