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Inspiration from the outside

Christopher Wolsko, PhD and Michael Gassner, PhD, Oregon State University – Cascades (OSU)
24 August 2020

Findings from the ongoing longitudinal investigation into UWCSEA’s Outdoor Education programme are demonstrating substantial and consistent changes in students’ skills and qualities. This update offers a glimpse into the elements of the UWCSEA learner profile that students report they are developing most, and points to how the College’s Outdoor Education curriculum in the Middle and High School provides the avenues for this growth.

About the OSU study

This comprehensive evaluation aims to understand the effectiveness of UWCSEA’s expedition programme, by attempting to answer some challenging and complex questions on the emotional, psychological and overall wellbeing impact of our Outdoor Education programme on our students. We hope it will give us further insight into what we have observed anecdotally and learned through experience: that outdoor education experiences have a positive, long term impact on students that stays with them and is transformational.
The researchers are experts in experiential education and social psychology. The benefit of a longitudinal study lies in the ability to analyse patterns that emerge over time. It gives us an in depth perspective on student learning and over the last few years has affirmed the role that resilience, commitment to care, and communication play during expeditions. Findings shared each year offer glimpses of emerging themes, and have already helped us to refine our programme. For example, the decision to redevelop the Grade 8 expedition into “one continuous journey” was affirmed by students insights and onsite programme evaluation work by the researchers. The research also provides insights into some of the interdependencies between elements of our learning programme. Data collection will continue for another two years.


At the forefront of students’ experiences across all expeditions, resilience manifests in multiple ways: individually, socially, and physically. It is most often reported when facing challenges, especially new ones. Whether cognitive, emotional or physical, students most often comment on:

  • being optimistic and confident when faced with challenges, 
  • persevering in the face of those challenges, 
  • having courage in unfamiliar situations
  • a perceived ability to transfer some aspects of resilience to life outside of the expedition

The five-day Grade 7 kayaking trip around Pulau Sibu stands out. As one student reflected:

I am able to successfully meet new challenges in my life because after going to the Sibu trip I learned that if I get my mind to do something out of my comfort zone, I can do it and it [sic] absolutely worth it. I feel like I have also become more of a risk-taker because I would’ve never challenged myself to go rock hopping when the current of the ocean was strong.

The Sibu programme also encourages students to work together, and to take care of one another in challenging circumstances. This results in the simultaneous cultivation of resilience, collaboration and commitment to care. Interestingly, students perceived that these traits were much better experienced on the outdoor education trip than in a school setting. This speaks to the value of allowing students to experience and further develop profile traits outside the normal school environment:

This trip made me more caring about others and how to make the world a better place … I managed to [be] social with various people on the trip making me aware of people’s problems and understanding them as we have more interaction on trips than class. This also gave me a chance to be in the other person’s shoes for a while

Commitment to Care

Caring for the natural world is a key characteristic that the expeditions seek to develop. This is particularly prevalent in students’ reported experiences on the Grade 6 expedition to Pulau Tioman, which has a great deal of time spent in nature undertaking different, but relatively short duration activities on their five-day itinerary. This time outside, whether on land or in and on the water, is very meaningful to students. An appreciation for nature, if not explicitly an aim of the Tioman trip, is certainly something students experience. Many students commented on the impact that the Juara Turtle Project had on them.

We were in a rainforest and on the water for most of the time, I felt like “Wow, this is the world we live in and it isn’t just the city that we see every day … I felt passionate about the environment and that I want to become more involved in helping the environment … when we visited the turtle centre, I found myself really concerned about the environment and even felt like crying after watching a video of the plastics that a turtle ate, which is something that I could never imagine myself to do if I have not gone on this trip, as I felt myself as part of this natural world.

And another student:

I am committed to helping the environment and animals. Whilst on the Tioman trip we learned a lot about turtles and I felt a deep connection to them. Weirdly enough, on the same day, my mother found a turtle crossing the street that was abandoned with scars on its nostrils which led to deformity. Ever since we have been taking care of him and love him so much. I feel that it is my duty to help animals any way I can, and the environment.

Some students expressed a desire to take what was learned beyond Tioman while mentioning how very meaningful the trip was to them.

I felt more passionate about shaping a better world during all the learning we did on sea turtles and all the consequences they have to face due to the increase in human development. I guess I have more of the urge to spread awareness around to others so that they can take action and responsibility in helping to save the turtles.

Communication, Collaboration, and Self-Management

A full 11 days, the Grade 8 trip is a significantly longer expedition, and offers students the opportunity to interact with peers from both campuses, as well as in unique cultural environments. These enhanced challenges especially encourage resilience, communication, collaboration, and self-management. In a reflection that is representative of many from the same year group, one student’s comment illustrates a progression in collaboration and communication outside the classroom environment:

I have been able to work with many people throughout this trip. I have seen this because we always had to be in groups for different things such as the cooking or the rafting. Especially during adventure week. This has really pushed me to collaborate with different people I don’t usually talk to and it has also helped me to learn a little bit more about the people in my class. I have been able to communicate with everyone and work effectively. At the beginning, it was a little bit hard, but as we had to put this skill into more practice, it became easier and it was also really fun.

In a common theme across grades, another student described the significance of learning outside the classroom:

Not only have I bonded with my mentor class as a whole, but there are a few people in my class who I’ve been more involved with, expanding my usual group of friends. Most of my close friends are not even in my class this year. But all it needed was time, and a different environment, other than school. Doing activities where we were supporting each other was crucial. At the end it brought us all together, and people noticed the good in me as well, which made me want to carry on that relationship more strongly, feeling trustworthy and balanced all at once.

The conditions of the expedition that pushed students to communicate and collaborate also encouraged self-management. Appropriate to students’ development, the Grade 8 trip affords the opportunity to cultivate this trait:

I think being in Chiang Mai taught me a lot about having to be independent, especially in adventure week. We had to cook our own food every day, and set up our bivvies pretty much on our own, otherwise we wouldn’t have food to eat or a place to sleep. Also when we were out during the day we had to use our own initiative to help each other and work together.