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OCT. 23, 2018

Environmental Chemistry at The Outdoor Academy

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This fall The Outdoor Academy added a new class to its curriculum: Environmental Chemistry. I was tasked with the fun challenge of piloting this course, which is not just your average 10th grade chemistry class, but a truly OA chemistry class. What does that mean, a truly OA chemistry class? Well, I’ll let my students do the talking. 

In class yesterday I asked The Outdoor Academy’s inaugural EChem class, a small and wonderful group of only four students, to share what they think about Environmental Chemistry. Some of their responses speak to the style of teaching they’ve encountered here, which often differs from what they’re used to at home. “When teachers don’t lecture you and let you participate in a discussion, it’s more fun and you learn more,” says Anna, a student from Miami Beach, FL. “I don’t feel like I’m being graded, I feel like I’m actually learning. At home, I take a class just thinking about my grade, but now I think, ‘I don’t understand this, I should go back and try again.’”

Others echoed this sentiment. “I put conscious attention [into learning] as opposed to just passing the class,” says Oliver, a student from Los Angeles. Cesca, also from Miami Beach, added, “I want to pay attention because what we’re learning actually matters in the world.” Anna agreed, saying, “it makes us aware of how much chemistry is a part of our lives.”

As a teacher this is gratifying to hear, especially because it speaks to the goals I have for students in EChem. The course objectives I’ve outlined for the class are to understand the chemical components and concepts as they relate to environmental issues, to understand how chemistry is relevant to one’s own life, and to draw connections between chemistry and other physical sciences. I remember taking 10th grade chemistry, and though I loved it, most other students in the class were checked out; they didn’t understand it, or didn’t see how they would ever need to know it, or both. But let me tell you: chemistry is so cool and fascinating and applicable! Okay, I may be biased because I’m a chemistry teacher; but if you don’t believe me, take it from my students.

Anna captured this idea beautifully: “I was always so scared of the periodic table, but now it’s so cool that I know what it is and how it works!” Cesca agreed with this, saying, “it’s nice to have everything make sense! I was expecting it to be a lot heavier on math and things I don’t understand, like traditional chemistry.”

It may not be traditional chemistry, but we still tackle the nitty-gritty of chemistry principles, such as atomic structure, bonding, molecules, chemical reactions, acids and bases, and all that fun stuff. “I love putting the elements together [into molecules], learning about covalent and ionic bonds,” says Cesca. “It’s cool to think that that’s what actually happens.” She also offered the insightful and esoteric observation that atoms aren’t alive, yet they are the components of all living things. I think these students are destined for big things.

Most of the course has focused on learning about environmental issues through the lens of chemistry. One of Oliver’s favorite topics was the atmosphere, learning about greenhouse gases, the layers of Earth’s atmosphere, and how light travels through and interacts with the atmosphere. Right now we’re learning about the hydrosphere. Anna thinks the water cycle is the most interesting concept we’ve learned so far: “how the water at the bottom of one river could end up in an ocean, and then it could end up in Norway in a glacier.” Our next unit will focus on the geosphere, and finally, we’ll learn about the chemistry of climate change.

In summary, the first semester of Environmental Chemistry has been a great success (in my humble opinion). I think we’re on to something here. But if this blog post demonstrates nothing else, I think the takeaway is that the students here at The Outdoor Academy are simply incredible. 

I’ll close with a quote from Rebecca, a student from Washington D.C. This warmed my heart to hear, and, in my mind, summarizes perfectly why Environmental Chemistry is so important. “It’s really cool learning about what we’re walking around in,” she told me. “We’re connecting what we’re learning to things that are relevant, and not just the environment, but politics and people’s lives.” 

                    See? Chemistry is so cool.

 By Caroline Lauth Quarrier, Environmental Chemistry Teacher

OCT. 16, 2018

Yellowjackets, it’s a zen thing.

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Aahh, autumn, and our thoughts here in the Blue Ridge turn to cool, clear days and ground-nesting yellowjackets. We have two “hornets” here in the mountains – the big, bald-faced “hornet” (Dolichovespula maculata) that makes the basketball-sized paper nest we see hanging in trees, and the small (5/8″) Eastern yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) that constructs a similar paper nest, but underground. Taxonomists classify them both as yellowjackets. All wasps, ants, and bees are in the Order Hymenoptera (membrane-winged) and the social wasps (as opposed to the solitary wasps) are in the family Vespidae. Most of these make paper nests. Our small yellowjackets make theirs underground.

Most of the social wasps, ants, and bees have caste systems with a fertile queen (and, when needed, fertile males) and sterile female workers. Nearly every wasp, bee, or ant you see is one of these sisters. A single queen starts a new colony in the spring after overwintering in a hollow tree or under a log. She has stored sperm from her mating the previous fall and constructs the first few cells of the nest, lays eggs in them and feeds the larvae, which pupate and emerge as the first workers. After that the queen remains in the nest, lays eggs and is tended by her daughters. These workers enlarge the nest all season, adding lower “stories” of cells and covering them with the protective outer paper nest. Occasionally you might see wasps scraping logs or fence posts to gather the fibers, which are then mixed with saliva to create this paper. The workers forage for food – nectar for themselves and insect prey for the larvae, which they first chew for them.

Late in the season the workers will build a few large cells and feed the larvae in them special high protein meals; these will become new queens. At the same time, the queen will lay some eggs from which she has withheld sperm – unfertilized eggs – which will become males, called drones. New queens and drones leave the nest to fly high into the sky for mating after which the drones soon die and the queens look for sheltered sites to spend the winter. The old queen is probably dead by that time and the colony breaks down. The workers fend for themselves, sometimes eating the remaining larvae (their baby sisters!) until they die with the approach of cool weather. So, although you could find a straggler or two inside, the nest is abandoned at the end of the season and you are doing no harm in collecting it, although I have read that it may be used as a winter retreat by mice. At any rate, it will not be reused by yellowjackets in the spring.

As you may know from experience, the sting of a yellowjacket really packs a punch. Justin Schmidt, who developed a four-point pain scale for insect stings, gives the pain from both our yellowjackets a solid two.  For Dolichovespula he records: “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door” and for a Vespula sting: “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.” More importantly than the pain, for some folks a sting means anaphylactic shock, which may become life-threatening, requiring treatment and hospitalization, so anyone stung should be watched for signs of an allergic reaction.

These social wasps are considered to be more highly evolved than the solitary wasps, which use their stingers (which are modified ovipositors which means only female wasps sting) to paralyze prey. The defensive stinging of yellowjackets delivers a complex of familiar hormones – acetylcholine, serotonin, and histamine. Variations of this toxin are also seen in scorpions, jellyfish, and even nettles. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic system, which is involved in involuntary responses. Serotonin induces vasoconstriction. Histamine is released in response to tissue damage and invasion by foreign substances and causes your blood vessels and capillaries to dilate and begin to leak plasma and it also triggers inflammation. No surprise that yellowjackets display aposematic or warning coloration to discourage predators.  Black bears, raccoons and skunks may be their only mammalian predators here since they sometimes brave the stings to tear open a nest to get at the juicy larvae.

So, why are these girls so fierce? Actually, when they are foraging they are quite docile, as you may have noticed as they steal meat from your sandwich. But when you threaten the nest site, they go ballistic, stinging repeatedly and pursuing you down the trail Yogi Bear-style. This is a classic example of kin selection theory from sociobiology. The workers are non-reproductive but they share the queen’s DNA, so protecting the colony equals protecting the queen equals protecting their investment – their only reproductive option. The more genetic information you share with another, the higher your interest in keeping them alive should be.

It really, really is true that even yellowjackets are fairly docile if you leave them alone. They pretty much only sting in defense of the hive site, so don’t swat at them or freak out if they are just trying to share your sandwich. Take the opportunity to observe them closely and calmly. It’s a zen thing.

By Ted Wesemann, Natural Science Teacher

OCT. 9, 2018

Rewinding and Re-wilding In The Smokies

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Semester 47 headed out to Great Smoky Mountain National Park at the beginning of last week for Classes in the Field. Each semester, The Outdoor Academy takes a deep dive into the layers of history present in the Cataloochee landscape, with a particular focus on the white settlers of the 1800’s up until the creation of the national park (recognizing that the area has been inhabited by native peoples for much, much longer prior to the white settlers entering the area).

We walk the old trails, imagine life in the old cabin structures still standing, and search for clues of former times in the woods. We learn spoon carving, calligraphy, map-making, fire building, oral storytelling, and Appalachian ballads. We might go spider hunting at night with flashlights or spot a bear and her cubs along the path. We wake up each morning and walk to a spot, solitary, to listen to the creek running beside our campsite as part of our traditional Morning Watch. And of course, we are sometimes gifted with the ancient bugling sounds of the elk—mega fauna reintroduced to the park in the 1990’s. Time slows down.

Dr. Margaret Brown, author of the book Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, April 2000), visited our school a week before our departure and met with students and faculty for a classroom session on the Cataloochee area of the Smokies. She challenged us to consider the different ways humans have defined “wild” and “nature” over the years, particularly in reference to the Smokies. Now viewed as a pristine wilderness of biodiversity, the area served as hunting grounds to the Cherokee, farmland to white settlers, and a moonscape after aggressive logging. As park visitors, we are viewing a “curated” wilderness, with species like elk and river otters reintroduced to the area. It’s stunning to consider how fast human impact can render populations extinct, only to begin the process of “re-wilding” again.

Sleeping beneath the protective gaze of Orion in a field surrounded by towering hardwoods was a dream for us this past week, and we ended the week with a three-day trip of either paddling or climbing. Now it’s time to return to our own “curated” wilderness on campus—seventy-five percent of the land being under conservation easement—and jump back into classes.

By Katie Harris, Dean of Academics


SEP. 26, 2018

The Antidote to Too Much Technology

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If you are a parent of a teenager you have probably spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and talking about the impact smartphones, the internet, and social media, may be having on your child.  There are thousands of articles, hundreds of books, and countless ongoing conversations about the amount of time a typical teenager spends on a screened device.  Many studies have been conducted and more are in process right now.  And yet, even with the plethora of written material that can be found on the subject, this is still a new concept in our culture. We have only scratched the surface in our understanding of the positive and negative effects of technology on individuals and on our population as a whole.  Many of the conclusions being drawn in the media and academic studies suggest that our digital developments are having more negative effects than positive.

Of course, the longitudinal studies on technological use are incomplete since this current teenage population, plus and minus five years, is the first generation to be raised on it. As Frances Jensen, chair of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, shares “What this generation is going through right now with technology is a giant experiment, and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”  According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 73% of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, have or have access to smartphones.   Studies suggest that smartphones are getting between adolescents and their enjoyment of and engagement in face-to-face interaction.  We’ve all witnessed teenagers sitting in small or large groups quietly focused on their personal screens.  And they see us, as adults, doing the same thing, perhaps with a little more moderation (but not always!). That’s the concerning news.

The good news is that, according to the Pew 2015 survey, more than half of teens worry that they spend too much time using their cell phones.  This is the world they are growing up in and they don’t know any different. Yet, this generation is recognizing the potential pitfalls of too much screen time.  This is where The Outdoor Academy comes in.

Back in 1994, The Outdoor Academy welcomed its first semester of tenth graders, just as computers with dial-up internet were becoming a standard feature in schools and in many homes.  As had been the tradition at Eagle’s Nest Camp, OA decided that internet connected computers, email, and phone lines were not going be a part of the students’ semester. While at OA, they would engage in an experience free from such distractions. For 4 months, students were to immerse themselves in the place they were in and the people they were with, to receive the unending opportunities to learn in the greatest context there is – the here and now.  Fast forward nearly 25 years, and being free from the distractions of modern society takes on a whole new level of importance for teenagers.

Having been at OA in the late 90’s and then returning in 2015, the decision made so long ago for OA to remain free from cell phones, internet, email, social media, gaming, etc. now seemed to me as cutting-edge.  As people across the US and the world grapple with “internet addiction,” one of the primary and most effective treatments is proving to be wilderness therapy.  The woods, the forest floor, the creek that ripples by, the sound of rustling leaves, the trail that invites conversation, the mountain vistas that invoke quiet contemplation – these things, these places, and these experiences are the panacea of the ages.

During the admissions interview with OA applicants, I ask the question, “How do you feel about stepping away from technology for four months?”  Many parents worry that this may be the one thing that will stop their teenager from wanting to attend OA.  Often, parents can’t imagine their child’s life without their cell phone in hand or their computer at their fingertips.  Well, the answer I hear from OA applicants nearly every time goes something like this: “I am really excited about that part.  I know I spend too much time on my phone and my computer, but I just can’t ignore it no matter how hard I try.  Being with people where no one has that around will be so nice.” Often, an applicant will recount stories of a short day hike they took with a friend or their family.  They will express how amazing it was to be with another person or a group where there were no phones and instead find themselves talking to the people around them. They will talk of the sounds of silence, of bird calls, and the sounds of the woods.  They will talk of how awesome it was just to focus on what they were doing at that moment.  The feelings they describe are those of a sense of place, a sense of awe, and a unique closeness to the people around them. This again is good news.

Our youth have a knowing inside them, a recognition, that there is an imbalance in the life consumed by their personal device, social media, texting, emails, and YouTube videos.  I am of the belief that as this generation ages into adulthood, they will find ways to regulate their personal technology use.  They will incorporate the strategies that they have found works for them and share these strategies with their children.  We owe it to them to share our ideas and experiences and to help them create this toolbox.

So long as the human species exists on this planet, the natural world in some way, shape, or form will continue to exist.  Our job as the adults, the ones who facilitate the day-to-day options and ways of living and being for our children, is to first and foremost take our children to the woods.  For it is there they will find their way. It is there where they will hear their own thoughts.  It is there where the miracles of life offer the lessons that can only be found in the natural world. As Jensen said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen” as a result of this technological experiment. But what we do know, and our youth are reminding us, is that there is no greater antidote for a distracted mind, a disconnected heart, or a soul longing for peace than to be in nature.  As Rachel Carson wrote, “Those who dwell in the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”

By Julie Holt, Admissions Director

SEP. 19, 2018

The Art of Community Building

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During our Community Meeting on Monday night, we introduced the students to Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development. This tried-and-true model of tracking a group’s growth and struggles has been used for decades, and though it has its share of critics, it has reliably described a common arc of change from the beginning to the ending of a group. The stages are usually described as Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning, though they don’t always follow such a linear path, and may circle back to different stages at different times.

After learning the stages, we reflected on where we might be right now as a semester. Some students thought we were still in the Forming stage, getting to know each other, figuring out social power, and learning how things worked here. Others thought we were in the Storming stage, where we had moved past the “honeymoon” and have started to interact more like siblings, including getting into disagreements and getting annoyed at each other.

Being in an intentional community is not easy. At OA, we focus a great deal of our attention on how we are interacting and growing as a community of students and faculty. How do we break down the “adult-student” barrier? How do we give feedback to each other in productive and growth-based ways? How do we create a safe space for individuals to express their true selves, while not having that expression make others feel unsafe? How do we share the student phone equally? By learning about how groups work and then turning our knowledge onto our own group development this semester, students will have a meta-analysis of how their contributions either bring the group forward or hold the group back. Students are empowered to steer the group development toward positive growth, such as in the role of leader of the day, the chance to run Community Meeting, cabin meetings, student-led trek, student meetings, and other opportunities throughout the semester.

One of the most challenging aspects of group development is balancing the individual’s needs against the group’s needs. This is an even more daunting task for an adolescent whose prefrontal cortex, in charge of a host of executive functions such as future thinking and determining right from wrong, is still developing. We often use the term “Tragedy of the Commons” to describe this dilemma. Do I take three cookies because they are right in front of me, or do I take one to make sure everyone in the group gets a fair amount? The Tragedy of the Commons gets played out in small and large ways throughout the semester, providing ample opportunity for the community to pause and reflect, provide feedback and establish new norms of behavior.

By the end of the semester, students should be able to determine not only stages of group development for the various groups they will join and create in their lives, but also be aware of what role they can play in a group to bring it forward in a positive way. For now, we will continue on our Forming/Storming trajectory, learning the skills of CFR’s (concerns, feedback, request) and VOMPing (voice, own, eMpathy, plan) to move us forward into the next stage and beyond.

By Susan Tinsley, Dean of Students

SEP. 12, 2018

A Transformative Experience at OA? Prove It!

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Fall at The Outdoor Academy in full swing! Orientation Trek was a success, classes have picked up steam, and we enjoyed time on the river and rocks during our first Paddle-Climb weekend. As I have watched the students of Semester 47 come together as a community and, generally, dive into the excitement of life at OA, I am thrilled to see the learning that is taking place. Whether it is a new idea in English, bear safety in the wilderness, or simply the rhythm of the daily life in a new environment, students have been learning since the day they set foot on campus here in Pisgah Forest. The lessons both in the classroom and out, coupled with the uncertainty of a new place and the intentional challenges facilitated by our faculty, create daily opportunities for students to grow. Indeed, I am struck by the changes both minor and major that I have witnessed here in the first two weeks of school.

As we have settled into Semester 47, the word “transformative” has come to my mind frequently. A parent of an alum referred to her son’s experience as transformative in an email last week. Faculty speak in terms of transformation when discussing our academic, residential life, and wilderness programming. In chatting with administrators at sending schools, I find myself returning to a discussion of enthusiastic young people taking advantage of a unique opportunity afforded by OA to transform aspects of their lives. As I have gotten to know this school, learned from our long-time faculty members, and connected with alumni, I continually hear about this theme of transformation.

But, aren’t we always changing? Isn’t that life? A continuous series of transformations? It can certainly seem that way, especially these days, as I watch my infant son Elem change constantly. When I hear of an event or an experience having been “transformative” for a person in a manner beyond the simple passage of time and realities of human growth and development, the historian in me jumps to attention. I want to know more.

What transformed? How did it transform? How do you know? Would other people share your perspective? What is your evidence? Your documentary support?

In some ways, this part of me can be a skeptic. Now, please don’t confuse my skepticism with pessimism, as I fully embrace the transformative potential of an experience at a place like The Outdoor Academy. My academic inclinations, however, demand that I refuse to accept these transformations as a matter of course, regardless of the belief I have in the power of this type of learning to change lives.

Last year, Dr. Roger Herbert, my predecessor, and the heads of 10 other semester schools decided that the endless anecdotes about passions ignited and lives changed as a result of a semester school like OA were not enough. Having seen the proof in the proverbial pudding, those of us who know this part of the educational landscape fully understand the good that comes from a semester school experience, but it was time to make that case more effectively to the world.

The Semester School Network, of which OA is a member, put together a request for proposals and ultimately awarded a grant to a team of researchers in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at the University of Utah College of Health. Led by Dr. Jim Silbthorp, who has done similar research for groups like The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and The American Camp Association, a group of professors and doctoral candidates is currently conducting a multi-year study about the transformative nature of a semester school education.

The first phase of the study concluded recently after the team spent several months conducting surveys and phone interviews with semester school alums from around the country, and their findings are exciting. Alums from OA and our peer schools reported that their experience helped them develop critical twenty-first century competencies, like empathy, resilience, a growth mindset, and collaborative problem-solving skills. What’s more, alums reported that these competencies play a major role in how they conduct their lives to this day. The data suggest that, indeed, a semester school experience is a transformative event in a young person’s life. As the competiveness of the college admissions process grows and the demands of changing economies dictate the need for a new type of 21st-century worker, the development of these kinds of character traits and social-emotional skills will play an increasingly-significant role in helping young people distinguish themselves.

This fall, we are moving into the second phase of the study. Students at OA and 10 other peer schools took a baseline survey during orientation week, and they will keep journals about their reflections on their activities over the course of three separate weeks of their semester. Additionally, students enrolled in spring semesters will take surveys while at their sending schools, as will our fall students when they return home in the spring. The focus of this portion of the project is to identify the specific mechanisms for transformation that help students develop the skills and competencies that the phase one surveys identified as being particularly strong facets of the semester school experience. Our goal is to better understand on a deep level what it is that we do so well so that we can amplify those elements of our curricula and programming. From there, it’s up to the students to go out and make a positive impact wherever they go.

It is indeed an exciting time to be a part of what is happening at schools like The Outdoor Academy. As I walk around campus, join students for meals, and hear about the rich topics they are studying in class, I cannot help but to feel validated in my decision to take a job at OA. The educator and parent in me know intuitively that these students are undergoing wonderful transformations, and the opportunity to take part in crafting an experience that has immense potential to positively impact—and, indeed, transform—a young person’s life is quite a rush. Thanks to the University of Utah, now, the scholar and the skeptic in me are starting to more fully understand why I was drawn to The Outdoor Academy in the first place.

By Glenn Delany, Director of The Outdoor Academy