Last summer, my (Samels') daughter Gabrielle chided me for coming up empty-handed after a morning of fishing on Lake Cochituate near our home in Natick, Mass. "Skunked again, Dad?"
I grumbled and blamed the "Eurasian Milfoil," an invasive foreign vegetation, which destroys lakes by strangling the natural balance of aquatic life.
This exchange got me to thinking. Sure enough, the lake seems to get warmer each year, which is why our cold-water habitat is now at risk (read as, trout displaced by sharp-tooth predators like pike and musky).
While the shrinking of glaciers and rising of tides may not impact our daily lives in the near term, events like the 2004 Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 compel us to learn more about our environment and the role we can play in building sustainable communities.
Since these catastrophic events, we sense a palpable shift in our monthly focus group discussions among major employers, guidance counselors, faculty, students, and parents. In fact, we see an emergent interest on campuses in environmental science and technology, natural resource management, wilderness survival skills, and eco-tourism. Indeed, what is fundamentally different at this moment in history is the confluence of emergent environmental, energy, and sustainability issues facing American higher education, and significantly, the daunting challenges to our fragile ecosystems around the world.
What is new is a robust, green industry creating a critical mass of environmental employers and jobs, justifying the return on tuition investment in environmental studies programs. This megatrend is also reflected in the greening of American college and university campus infrastructures, creating renewable energy sources, closing the circle on hazardous waste, and preserving green space for passive recreation uses.
Given the elevated interest in preserving our natural environment, we invite you to zip up your backpacks and hike along with us on a trek across the nation for a series of virtual campus visitations to America's outdoor colleges and universities.
Our first adventure kicks off in the wilds of northern Maine on the Canadian border, where the University of Maine at Fort Kent offers a genuine Allagash Wilderness Waterway learning experience. President Richard Cost reflects on the university's special outdoor mission: "The geography of the Saint John Valley defines our rural campus, a small intimate campus surrounded by splendid isolation, and a spectacular natural wilderness environment. Our students want a real wilderness learning experience where they can get their feet wet and their hands dirty working on important projects that preserve the wilderness for future generations."
Our next campsite is at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. UNH offers undergraduate and graduate programs in the fields of resort management and outdoor recreation with a special environmental sensitivity interwoven throughout the curriculum. UNH also hosts the Northeast Passage, a program that provides new opportunities for disabled students to enjoy the outdoors as a central part of UNH's Therapeutic Recreation program option. UNH is accredited by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), which for more than 40 years has built a strong core of nearly 100 specially accredited institutions.
Another NRPA-accredited institution is Green Mountain College, which bills itself as "Vermont's Environmental Liberal Arts College." Nestled in the mountains, the college features niche programs in the growing fields of adventure recreation and ski resort management. Green Mountain is also a member of The Eco League, which provides student exchange opportunities with five other outdoor colleges: Antioch College (Ohio), Prescott College (Ariz.), the College of the Atlantic (Maine), Alaska Pacific University, and Northland College (Wisc.).
Next up is Paul Smith's College in the Adirondacks, a campus of 14,200 acres on the shores of Lower St. Regis Lake in New York. Paul Smith's offers programs in a full range of green programs, including forestry, surveying, and natural resource management with a focus on hands-on training. President John Mills sums up the college's unique mission: "The real value of a PSC education is in the emphasis on not just learning something, but in actually doing it."
Heading west, our next stop is Earlham College (Ind.). Earlham offers students an interesting array of off-campus wilderness learning experiences, including rock climbing, kayaking, and backpacking, interspersed with field practica in the wild. These practica typically involve semester-long experiential learning in the desert Southwest, as well as month-long courses in Utah and Canada called the August Wilderness. Nelson Bingham, Earlham's provost, sums it up this way: "Outdoor education at Earlham uses the outdoors as a learning laboratory for students to engage environmental issues, biology, philosophy, history, and group dynamics."
Traveling north to Wisconsin, Northland College is on the shores of Lake Superior. With majors in adventure education, natural history, and therapeutic design, the college also home to an environmental institute, dedicated to the solution of environmental problems through research, education, and civic involvement. In the words of Provost Rick Fairbanks: "At Northland, 'environmental liberal arts' means that we provide an education shaped by place-an education focused on understanding how nature and culture shape and define each other. This love of place found expression this summer when our president, Karen Halbersleben, volunteered as a lighthouse keeper on Michigan Island in the nearby Apostle Islands National Lakeshore."
Our last destination is Western State College of Colorado, set in the spectacular crown of the Colorado Mountains near Crested Butte. Western's courses and programs have a special focus on snow, land, and water environmental impact with experimental field education in western Colorado and Utah. Western's unique setting offers students the opportunity to complement their classroom work with hands-on experiences in the outdoors to provide what Western terms "the extreme learning experience."
President Jay Helman, provides this context for the Western State learning experience: "With 1.7 million acres of Gunnison River territory at the front door, the Outdoor Recreation program is an interdisciplinary, hands-on experience where students travel to several Western states for an outdoor recreation experience, join a mountaineering and service learning project in Argentina, and learn ski resort management."
Each of these institutions in the wild-though different in size, makeup, and geographic location-recognizes the demand for a truly authentic, nitty-gritty outdoor learning experience-all in a wilderness environment that provides a natural backdrop for its students and faculty. From the Allagash Wilderness to the snowy peaks of Colorado's majestic mountains, these colleges and universities take advantage of their unique setting in the wild to provide Generation Y and beyond with rare opportunities to learn more about their natural environment. Caring and engaged students are learning about new threats to our ecosystem and, importantly, new real-world solutions-solutions that just might help save our planet for future generations.
James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their book is Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).