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MAR. 11, 2021

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The Outdoor Academy, Semester Education and a University Study on Transformative Learning 

The Outdoor Academy, as one of the earliest pioneers in high school semester away education, belongs to an elite group of nine other similar semester schools, the Semester School Network (SSN). Scattered throughout the country, the schools belonging to the SSN have clear commonalities with community and experiential academic rigor as their foundation, yet each have uniquely different focal points. For example, The Oxbow School in California focuses on studio artmaking and interdisciplinary studies; The Mountain School in Vermont is centered around a working farm where students become intimately acquainted with food production. At The Outdoor Academy, our focus on our four cornerstones of Intellect, Environment, Craft, and Community, engages the whole student at this pivotal age for high school sophomores and juniors. 

For over 25 years, we and other semester schools have received feedback from our alumni collectively that the semester away experience has been transformative and has shaped their lives in many ways. In 2019, the University of Utah completed a three year study (Sibhorth, Meerts-Brandsma, & Ricks) about the impact that semester schools have on their participants and specifically focused on the students and alumni of the schools belonging to the Semester School Network. The research echoed the anecdotes we’ve heard from our alumni for years. The study identified eight significant outcomes that were commonly shared by students who had attended semester schools. These outcomes included: willingness to try new things; appreciation for learning; appreciation for diversity, perseverance; communication; decision-making; responsibility; and self-confidence. Consistently, the studies revealed that a semester away during high school in our academically rigorous, physically challenging, community-oriented semester schools supported students’ identity development. 

Below is a brief summary of the findings from the University of Utah’s study as excerpted from their final report, Understanding  Semester  Schools  As Transformative  Learning Experiences”:

Semester  school  students  widely  report  their  experience at  the semester  school as  transformational.  Students  claim  their  lives  are not  the same.  All  three phases of  our  investigation showed students  do indeed change.  Phase one  revealed over  90%  of  students  report  having  experienced transformational  learning  in some  form.  Phase two  found students  are experiencing  greater  identity exploration and identity  commitment,  which are instrumental  in the identity formation  process.  The  final  phase  discovered  students  are returning  home  from their  semester  schools  with a shifted perspective in the  way  they  engage with learning  and who they  decide  to surround themselves  with.  Throughout  all  of  the phases,  many  of  the  same  mechanisms  were identified  as  major  contributing factors  to these  transformations.  The relationships  with other  students  and faculty,  the  pedagogical  techniques,  the  non-traditional  structure of  semester schools,  and  the curriculum  all  played important  roles  in the  transformation students  reported.   

While I am the Director of Admissions for OA, I am also the parent of a teenager who has enjoyed the great fortune of attending two different semester schools within the SSN network. The transformative nature of his OA experience during the spring semester of his sophomore year was more than even I, as the Admissions Director, ever imagined it could be (see my previous blog for more of my reflections on his OA experience). He then attended the High Mountain Institute (HMI) in Colorado during the fall semester of his senior year. 

Before attending HMI, my son’s sense of identity, his leadership style, and his love of learning was already well established during his OA semester. Following his semester at HMI, along with the deepening of so many of his takeaways from his semester at OA, my son returned home with a clear sense of when and why he should lead coupled with the additional hard skills to do so. I have heard from many people, some who know him and others who don’t, that interacting with him now feels not like an interaction with a 17 yr old but much more like an interaction with a post-college adult. 

I believe my own observation of my son’s development is exactly what the University of Utah study is referencing when they speak of the “accelerated self-identity” that seems to form through the semester school experience. It is clear that transformational learning is the kind of learning that was central to both of his semester away experiences as I know it also has been for thousands of other semester school alumni. Alumni from SSN schools are not only transformed by their experiences but they continue to be informed by them for the rest of their lives.

For further information about the University of Utah study, please see the below links:

This blog is the first of a three part-series on OA, the Semester School Network, and the University of Utah study. Look out for the follow-up blogs to this, written by Katie Rowlett, OA Admissions Counselor and Semester 48 alumnus, in the next couple of weeks. Those will highlight her interviews with four of our faculty members who have taught at several other schools belonging to the Semester School Network. These teachers’ personal experiences with the richness of semester education and transformative high school experiences echo the findings of the University of Utah study, and will inspire you with their passion and insight. 

— Julie Holt, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid