Welcome, readers, to an enlightening interview with St. Anne's new Director of Outdoor Education. In this friendly conversation, we delve into the fascinating journey and vision of a professional deeply committed to enriching the lives of students through outdoor education.
Morgan, can you share a bit about your background and what drew you to the outdoor education field?
I have known I wanted to work with kids in the outdoors from a young age. As my best friend from high school will tell you, senior year, I declared I would work at camp forever after spending my first full summer as an Assistant Counselor.
I went on to Fort Lewis College, Durango, CO, where I earned my degree in environmental studies with a focus on sociology and anthropology. I was interested in learning more about how people interacted with their environment and why they interacted that way. I began reflecting on my experiences in the outdoors. I determined that the connection I felt to nature and the natural world, and my sense of responsibility for it, was because of the outdoor recreation and educational experiences I had been exposed to throughout my young life. At this time, I read and wrote a paper based on the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder (Last Child in the Woods - Richard Louv).
I felt drawn to work that connected students to nature, and I worked to develop a sense of belonging and stewardship in young people. I thought the only way to do this was camp. I had never heard the term Outdoor Education-adventure education, experiential education, sure, but was I qualified for that? At 21, I had no idea. I then stumbled across a job posting for an environmental educator position on Jekyll Island in Georgia. I had never lived outside of Colorado, and I had never taught anyone about any ecosystem other than the Rockies. I had seen the Atlantic Ocean exactly once in my life, and yet, the team down there took a chance on a girl from a landlocked state and hired me to be an outdoor educator. I fell in love.
I have since worked as an environmental educator in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Colorado. (Somewhere along the line, Environmental Education got a soft industry rebrand into Outdoor Education). Outdoor Education (as opposed to environmental) focuses more on the growth and development of the whole student versus just the memorization of science information with hands-on practices.
Following my state-hopping as an educator, I returned to school, where I earned my MS in Conservation Leadership from Colorado State University, Fort Collins. Through my master's work, I researched the differences in pedagogies from Environmental Education to Outdoor Education to Conservation Education. While each has an important place in the education model, Outdoor Education spoke to me the most. Upon successfully defending my master's thesis project, I graduated and moved to California. I spent the last 6.5 years working in various roles for the Outdoor Science School at YMCA Camp Campbell. In my final chapter with Camp Campbell, I supervised the Outdoor School program, overseeing large-scale curriculum development, managing a team of educators, and supporting students and teachers in their outdoor learning pursuits.
I'm drawn to Outdoor Education because of the value it adds to a young person's life. The potential it has to change communities locally and globally in a positive way is unmatched.
Morgan, your background is incredibly impressive. Could you highlight some key benefits outdoor education brings to students' overall development?
There is tangible evidence, data, and countless studies to support the idea that kids exposed to nature and who spend time outside alongside their peers experience less anxiety, depression, and ADHD symptoms and are more successful at school. Students who spend time outdoors tend to perform better academically and enter society as more well-rounded adults.
It's important to acknowledge these pieces of student well-being through a lens of science - we have seen it, studied it, and know that exposure to the natural world positively impacts our young people. It also has a positive impact on adults!
When we incorporate outdoor education into the students' learning model, we allow them a better connection to their peers, and we are helping expand on learning happening in the classroom in unique ways that will enforce certain ideas and topics. The young people we expose to nature grow up to have a sense of responsibility for their community. Cultivation of the natural creativity and investigatory skills that kids have is something Outdoor Education does beautifully. All these elements are important, and together, they come to help us grow more resilient, well-informed, bold students.
The "St. Anne's in the Hills" campus is fascinating. How do you plan to leverage its 16.5 acres for unique outdoor learning experiences, and what do you love most about this campus?
I am so excited about this space! The campus is beautiful, and its history with the St. Anne's community is powerful. There are so many things about this campus that I'm excited about using for the program. I cannot wait to have students explore and learn on the property. I am eager to explore some Service Learning opportunities throughout the school year and am excited to look at them through a lens of growth potential and legacy. Each grade will have a unique experience when they come to SAITH. We will learn with the seasons as the world around us changes. I am excited to expand the program's team-building, science, and nature observation elements and to look towards the future and infuse more trips, place-based learning, and classroom connections into what we're doing at SAITH. I love everything about the campus; its potential is unmatched! Walking into the woods, finding my way to one of the small aspen groves on the property, and sitting in the quaking aspens, listening to the forest around me, feels like coming home.
In today's technology-driven world, how do you intend to balance traditional outdoor activities with modern tools and resources in your programs?
There is a lot of room for using technology in Outdoor Education. I believe in a healthy balance of learning and use. We can participate in many incredible citizen science projects because of technology, such as using apps for plant and animal identification. However, before using those tools, we must learn other ones. Let's practice plant ID with a field guide first. Then we can ask our smartphones. Are their answers the same? Are they different? Which would you trust more? Let's discuss the same ideas with compasses vs. digital GPS tools. Knowing how to use a Garmin GPS is excellent and helpful, but what if you don't have one or it breaks? The life skill of reading a compass and map is so handy. Plus, the compass weighs less on a long hike or backpacking trip.
Outdoor education can have a lasting impact on students. Are there any particular skills or values you hope students will gain through your programs?
I hope the students I work with feel a stronger connection to the place and their peers. I hope they learn that they can make a difference within their community and that their impact on the world around them is lasting and matters. I hope to spark a sense of wonder and curiosity about the outdoors. I want to help students learn that they don't have to love the dirt or be best friends with spiders to appreciate the outdoors. I want students to build deeper relationships with one another. The outdoors has an incredible way of breaking down barriers between people. I hope the students who participate in programs at SAITH feel more connected in all aspects of life.
Nature conservation and environmental awareness are crucial topics today. How do you plan to instill a sense of responsibility for the environment in your outdoor education initiatives?
The more we talk about these topics on a large scale (domestically and globally) and a small scale (locally), the easier they become to care about. For so long, these topics have felt like a doom and gloom conversation that young students can't handle, and tiptoeing around them or avoiding them altogether is doing our students a disservice. On the same note, you can't demand that students care about conservation and environmental action overnight. I greatly advocate helping kids find passion in a topic and diving into that idea further. Not every single student is going to care fiercely about invasive species and the impacts that they have on local ecosystems. Only some students will find the history of forest fires and fire ecology fascinating. But some will. For those students, they will likely make an impact in that area. As a society, we must recognize that change doesn't happen overnight. It takes time, skills, passion, and students working together on what they care about. I want to teach students collaboration and that they don't have to have the same desires or dreams, but they can complement and collaborate and make an impact.
Lastly, could you share a memorable personal experience that highlights the transformative power of outdoor education?
There are so many moments where the transformative power of Outdoor Education stands out to me. I can think about myself as a middle schooler coming home from Eco Camp for the first time, and after spending ten days learning and growing as a person in the woods, I was more myself than I'd ever felt before. I can look back to when I was learning all the curriculum I would teach in Georgia and felt so silly and overwhelmed. Then, as soon as students arrived for their first visit, some of them seeing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, the spark of wonder and amazement they all shared made everything in my life make sense.
I have worked with thousands of students over the years, and in every state, in every program, every week, there is a student who comes to learn who is branded as "a problem," "difficult in class," or "a behavior to watch." More often than not, those students thrive in the outdoor learning environment and return to school with a new reputation among their peers. At school, adults view them through a lens of success. They have a new sense of confidence in themselves. Outdoor education, immersive learning, and spending time in nature have true moments of magic, and I'm so thankful to bear witness to them.
Morgan, it has been a pleasure to delve into your background and motivations. Your journey from a passionate camp counselor to a seasoned outdoor educator with a strong academic foundation underscores the transformative power of nature and experiential learning. Welcome, Morgan! We are happy to have you here at St. Anne's!