A Saskatoon Public Schools program that offers an innovative learning experience for high school students has received national recognition.
Outdoor School Program received the Outstanding K-12 Class, School, or School District Award during the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication (EECOM) annual conference held May 10-12 in Saskatoon.
The award recognizes innovative environmental education or communication programs that foster a greater understanding of ecological principles, environmental issues and ethics; allow students to develop their skills; and engage students in environmental action projects.
"This award is exciting for the program and all of the students who have been part of Outdoor School. It recognizes the commitment of Saskatoon Public Schools and of the educators who created and then nurtured the program," said Mitch Lowe, who has taught in the program for six years and was an Outdoor School student while in high school.
"The community nature and number of people who have contributed to the success of Outdoor School over the past two decades show what a powerful model for education it continues to be. The fact that the program remains relevant and impactful on students' lives today demonstrates what a great idea it is."
Launched for the 1996-97 school year, Outdoor School was the school division's first program to incorporate place-based, outdoor learning. Its example has since led to the establishment of similar programs at both the elementary and collegiate level as part of the division's commitment to education for sustainable development.
The semester-long program is based at Walter Murray Collegiate and is open by application to Grade 11 students from throughout the school division. Opportunities for adventure — canoeing, rock climbing, camping and other outdoor pursuits — help spark student interest and students are challenged to seek high levels of achievement both academically and physically through their outdoor pursuits.
"The program uses a cross-curricular approach to promote interdisciplinary and experiential learning opportunities," Lowe said. "The high percentage of time students spend learning and living in the environments they study, along with the collaborative and community-minded nature of the program, many times results in transformative experiences for students."
Students have the opportunity to connect with the land and significant ecological experiences provide an exceptional opportunity to develop a high level of understanding.
Outdoor School has evolved during the past two decades to respond to the changing Saskatchewan context. Notable changes include opportunities for honouring Indigenous knowledge as well as supporting students as they address topics such as climate change, habitat fragmentation, and land use.
"Outdoor School has continued to contribute to environmental education because of the tradition of community partnership," said program co-teacher Jana Miller. "Through engaging with the community, students have been taught by experts in environmental sciences, passionate leaders, and engaged citizens, and been inspired to achieve great things."
At both the division and provincial level it has provided a successful example of developing students as active and engaged citizens. More than 1,000 students have been a part of the program during its 20-plus years of operation, and the way in which Outdoor School empowers and enables students to purposefully pursue ecological work is reflected in the significant number of graduates who have gone on to become scientists, community leaders, activists and teachers.
"The magic of the program lies in the 'process' that challenges and expects Grade 11 students to live and learn with a sense of independence, responsibility and respect," Lowe said. "The challenges and big-life experience it delivers hits everyone cognitively, physically and emotionally, but it also does so with love, support and high expectations."
More information about Outdoor School is available on the program website at www.saskatoonpublicschools.ca/outdoorschool.