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SEP. 18, 2014

Standing Down the Coyotes

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“Hoooooooowl!”  we called into the foggy air.

“Hoooooooowl!” came the immediate answer several feet above us.

“I see one,” Katie M. whispered.

Over the edge of the hill, a furry gray face appeared: coyote. I turned and looked down the trail at the long string of Semester 39 students, silent and very still.

Long bodies, thick gray tails, unmistakably wild, these coyotes were among some of the healthiest I’ve ever seen. It is unusual to hear a pack during the daytime on our campus ridgelines, but as the students and I sat around a fire in discussion, we were interrupted by the sound of the wild. We greeted them in like kind and were rewarded for our efforts in hearing their calls back to us, seeing them run up and down the ridgeline, before disappearing into the rhododendron.

This was during our first Cornerstone Day—an academic interdisciplinary experience each Friday that honors our four cornerstones of Intellect, Environment, Craft, and Community. In our efforts to explore what it means to live well, these cornerstones are at the heart of what we do. And Cornerstone Day is at the heart of what classes at OA are all about—experiential education, connectivity, collaboration, community.

On this day, we took our cue from Thoreau’s famous passage that begins with the words, “I went to the woods because…” We went on a silent hike, pondering why humans go into the wilderness. We encountered several authors and scientists wandering the forest, also struggling with this very question (cameo appearances by our own staff dressed in character as Abbey, Dillard, Darwin, Thoreau, Colinvaux, and Walker). After these surreal meetings, we spent time in discussion, staff and students alike, about what draws us to nature, time and time again. But the most powerful part of the day for me was the most unexpected—a visit from the pack.

As we discussed this question of why we go into the woods, I was reminded by the coyotes that no matter our expectations and plans for personal ventures into the woods, nature will have the unexpected to offer us, moments beautiful and glorious, disturbing or scary, but always moments that lift us outside of ourselves for a moment — and into an awareness of the wider world around us, largely unknown. It is a gift to greet that world, or stand it down, with your own pack.

Katie Harris
English, Dean of Academics

MAY. 6, 2014

Integrating Art and Music

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Have you ever wondered what math sounds like? As a part of the honors program at OA, students can choose one of three different routes. Avery chose to do a project to earn honors credit in his Pre-Calculus class. He wrote up a proposal and we both signed a contract outlining the parameters and requirements of his project and final presentation. Avery has a lot of background and interest in music so throughout the semester he has been working to compose a song using the famous Fibonacci sequence as his inspiration. The Fibonacci sequence gives something called the golden ratio and the golden angle, which are displayed all throughout nature. A pine cone, a sunflower, and the human body are just a few examples. How amazing that all these things in our world exemplify Fibonacci! This sequence can also be applied to other mediums such as visual art, architecture, and music. Avery’s choice in tempo, each note, and the ordering of notes in his song composition were all influenced by the Fibonacci sequence. He will present his final project to the school during lunch on Monday and Tuesday. For now, enjoy this audio representation of the Fibonacci sequence!

Click here to see and hear Avery’s song.

Jen Hilterman
Math Teacher

MAR. 26, 2014

Talking Philosophically

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Weekends at OA can look a little wild. When we are on campus (about 4 or 5 weekends a semester), we could be doing anything from building stoves out of soda cans, mapping our woods, playing guitar in the sunshine, or an intense trail run. A couple of weekends ago, we had a bit of time for what we like to call Sense of Place skills. Again, this could vary from baking bread to writing poetry to rock climbing. Our offerings this particular Saturday included needle felting, climbing on the tower, and my personal project, “Talkin’ about stuff.”

Semester 38 has a philosophical mind. The students are motivated by problems they are made aware of and really love to dig into an idea. We’ve done a couple of other philosophy-based activities and students keep asking for more. But on this sunny afternoon, as I described the activity I was offering, I quickly began to doubt whether or not I would get a single student to follow me inside towards the whiteboard. Four did. This is something of a landslide victory for philosophy, which might be described by high school students as the least interesting subject in existence.

The five of us proceeded to discuss this quote:

“Your genes do not belong to you, your genes belong to humanity.”

And the discussion moved me. Emotionally, I mean. As I listened to the students’ focus and insight, their ability to bring in sources from their science, English and environmental seminar classes with precision and clarity, I become so proud. Everyday now I continue to be so grateful to work and live in an environment where learning is loved and respected as it is here. Give thanks, OA.

Beth Daviess
Resident Wilderness Educator

MAR. 22, 2014

Alternations of Generations

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And The Importance of Asking “Why?”
By Beth Daviess, Female Resident

On a warm day, one of a number of pleasant surprises we’ve had in the past few weeks, science class sat on a trail trying to metaphorically “pull apart”   Lycopodium. Or rather, the mystery of it.

In true OA fashion, as we discussed Lycopodium we happened to be nestled in a Lycopodium patch, surrounded by the miniature trees themselves. Lycopodium, you see, is a type of club moss that has a very special characteristic, brought to my attention by a student. Elsa described to me Lycopodium’s almost unique ability to become sexual or asexual as it saw fit. “Alternation of generations.”  A weighty phrase that could describe quite a few ideas, in this case signifies an organism’s use of multiple reproductive strategies throughout it’s lifecycle.

As we sat in the dirt and played with sticks, the class moved into a discussion of why organisms would evolve to reproduce this way, switching back and forth between methods; if alternation of generations was effective, as it appeared to be given our surroundings, why hadn’t other organisms, ourselves included, evolved similarly adaptable traits. Why, Ted asked, Can’t I grow another Ted out of my toe, and another Ted out of his toe, and so on.

The class launched into a frustrating, exhilarating discussion of why or why not. Why should alternation of generations be better than our reproductive strategy? And if it was, why aren’t we doing it. What could that look like? Why? I was struck, at this moment, by the determination I saw in every student’s eyes. They would not passively accept this brilliant mystery, let such an interesting problem go unaddressed. I could see that Elsa, and Christian and Levi knew that, evolutionarily, there must be a reason we are this way and not that. But again, Why?

This question reverberates on the OA campus. I might even argue it is the most important thing we teach our students. To question, to know a problem and try to solve it, to enjoy the sweet frustration of the unsolvable. That is what we try to instill at The Outdoor Academy.

FEB. 7, 2014

Life in the Boundary Layer

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Two of the books I’m reading right now are colliding a bit. Lately, I’ve become interested in identifying some local bryophytes – mostly mosses – after a new field guide was published last year. I just picked up Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a John Burroughs Medal Award winner to help me out. The second book is How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. I’m so fascinated with the craft of writing fiction and, at the same time, so ignorant. I was the kid that complained “Oh come on, the author didn’t write all that symbolism in there.” Turns out they did. My apologies, Miss Schmidt.

Early on, Robin Kimmerer mentions the boundary layer as she discusses moss habitats. This phenomena of edges and interfaces shows up a lot in science and literature. It is analogous to the way the Gulf Stream spins off eddies on the Atlantic coast as the edges of that northern current slow down due to contact with the shallow littoral zone. It also reminds me of the ecotone boundary between habitats – often a more species-rich area than either of the habitats. In fact, some of her graduate studies looked at what’s called the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis, the observation that diversity is often highest in the areas between the extremes. One of her examples is a moss community on a riverside cliff in Wisconsin. A few dry-adapted species live high up, a couple of flood-adapted species live close to the water, but many more may live in the zone between. Where the disturbance is frequent or harshest, in this case either often dry or often wet, only a few highly specialized species survive.

But back to the boundary layer. I’ve been studying the granitic outcrop habitat of Cedar Rock in DuPont State Park just down the road. This is a 250 million-year-old crystallized magma bubble called a pluton – a big, rounded rock hill. It’s a difficult environment for plants; there is little soil or water and lots of exposure. It’s baked in the summer sun and scoured by the wind in winter. In the case of the Cedar Rock bryophytes, success is mostly a matter of getting out of the wind. When air travels over any surface, the flow is disrupted by contact with that surface. Even the tiniest patch of moss increases that disruption and creates a boundary layer of still air maybe only a few centimeters high. This has at least four effects: it traps and warms air at the substrate surface; it lowers evaporation, creating a humid zone; and it raises the availability of carbon dioxide by trapping the gases released by the decomposition of rotting organics. Well, let’s see… mosses need light, warmth, carbon dioxide, and water. Apparently their very presence generates their own microhabitat – they are not hanging on for dear life in a tough environment as it appears. On a sunny day they finish their shopping early and snack and nap away the afternoon. They’ve been doing this on the planet for 350 million years now.

Mostly, this surprises and pleases me because it seems so contrary to our experience of extracting and sometimes bludgeoning our resources from the environment at such high costs. Imagine that simply lounging in the sun brought you food and water and oxygen. It sure begs the question why mosses and not ants or red-tailed hawks or lizards or us? Well, of course, we aren’t photosynthetic producers on the trophic pyramid and must rely on eating those who are, or their predators, called herbivores. But there are a few photosynthesizing animals in our ancestry, like the protist Euglena. Certainly that would have been the evolutionary motherlode. A missed opportunity, to be sure.

Oh yes, the second book. Symbolism in literature. Hmm… I thought there was a tie-in here, but I’m no English major. I’ll get back to you on that. I will say that I have been thinking of our school as a place where we create a boundary layer. Much of it is very intentional and defines The Outdoor Academy structure. But like natural selection in bryophytes, much of our day-to-day experience here also reveals a surprise secondary effect created by a boundary layer that gives us the security to explore new adaptations and niches that will reduce competition and maximize peaceful coexistence and production. We call this effect community.

Ted Wesemann

FEB. 3, 2014


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“Jen, can we have class outside today?” This was music to my ears! Miles wanted to have Pre-calculus class outside since it was snowing. While every other school in Transylvania County cancelled or called an early dismissal, the students at The Outdoor Academy embraced the weather. I responded to Miles, “Sure. Snow is very mathematical, you know.”

The Fractal Foundation defines a fractal as “infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales.” A special type of fractal is a Koch Snowflake. This fractal starts as an equilateral triangle. With each iteration of the pattern, the object becomes more and more like a snowflake. You could say a snowflake is a natural example of the Koch Snowflake fractal. Other examples of fractals patterns in nature include trees, mountain ranges, lightning, and coastal lines.



I am excited to have the world as my classroom and students who are excited about that too. I learn more about the connection between math and nature every time I venture out into the forest or up in the mountains. How cool that you can see the laws of math everywhere! Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Jen Hilterman
Math Teacher