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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

AUG. 1, 2018

The Outdoor Academy: Grit Before Grit Was Cool

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Part I

At about 3am on day four of Semester 46’s five-day Student-led Trek, I woke to rain pattering against my tarp.  The weather had been pleasant so far, but there were ample signs that a change was coming: wispy cirrus clouds, stiffening breezes, a halo circling the waxing moon. Half asleep and half to herself, my co-instructor, McNeill, made it official: “here it comes.”  In a few hours we’d be negotiating a cold, wet, and windy, day on the trail.  But for now I was toasty warm in my bag under my fluttering tarp.  I rolled over, delighted with the prospect of another four hours of sleep.

The leaders of the day, Racheal and Uma, woke us at 7am.  We enjoyed a hot breakfast and broke camp under a heavy drizzle rather than the torrents I had expected.  When the skies finally delivered the anticipated downpour perhaps a quarter mile into our hike, we felt grateful for the morning’s reprieve.  No backpacker prefers cold rain to warm sun, but the mood was positive.  Our bellies were full and we knew the hike ahead would be relatively easy: only six miles, all downhill.

We made great time.  By 11am we were within a half-mile of our planned campsite.  Our tarps would soon be up and, if we chose to, we could wait out the weather in warm, dry sleeping bags.

About 300 meters to the northeast of our campsite our trail crossed Grassy Cove Prong, a gentle stream that drains Ivester Gap into the East Fork of the Pigeon River. Typically a hiker can rock-hop across Grassy Cove and keep her boots dry.  Today, however, there were no exposed rocks to hop; they were submerged under several feet of unusually swift water.  Swollen by the rain, Grassy Cove Prong had gone from the “bunny slope” I have easily crossed dozens of times to a “black diamond” that demanded our respect. 

With the rain and wind gathering strength, we started working the problem.  McNeill and I found a route through chilly, waste-deep water that seemed manageable if we ran a hand line to reduce the risk of a swift-water “swim”.  As we considered other risk-mitigating strategies, McNeill prudently suggested that I jog down the trail to scout the Pigeon, which we would have to cross the next day. 

I returned in twenty minutes with a scouting: “Nope.”   Our campsite was flooded and the East Fork of the Pigeon River was raging.    

An instructor’s role on a student-led trek is to step in only when safety is a concern.  Now that McNeill and I had stepped in to declare that “plan A” was unsafe, we once again stepped back; it was up to the students to devise “plan B.”

Uma and Racheal huddled over the map, gathered input from their teammates, made their decision, and advised McNeill and me of their plan to retrace the route we had just completed.  Instead of the six-mile, downhill day we had anticipated, it would be a 12-mile day, and the next six miles would include a 2000-foot climb. 

It was hard news to deliver, but everyone (including the instructor team) agreed it was the right call.  In preparation for the challenge ahead, the team lunched on peanut butter and jelly wraps and then passed around a bag of Gummy Bears, a treat they had reserved for that moment when it was either richly deserved or desperately needed.  Both conditions seemed to apply.    

The hike back up to Ivester Gap and then out to Sam Knob, our revised campsite, was as tough as we expected, but our trek group was tougher.  Occasional tears of frustration gave way to peels of self-deprecating laughter, gallows humor in the face of torrential rain, 30-knot gusts, and temperatures in the mid 40s.  There was one moment during the early afternoon when the rain seemed to ease up a bit.  I had the temerity to wonder out loud if the worst of it had passed.  On cue, the skies reopened, delivering sheets of rain and inspiring ironic laughter.   Sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Part II

Our children are reminded every day that they are fragile and weak.  Twenty-four hour news cycles contain an inherent “if it bleeds it leads” bias.  Schools routinely pronounce that safety is their top priority (prompting the question: how far down the priority list do teaching and learning fall?).  At home, well-intended parents are perpetually alerted to new dangers and warned that they must shield their children from the mayhem that lurks beyond their protective arms.    

There are two things that should concern us about this seemingly ubiquitous narrative of fragility and weakness: 1) it’s dangerous, and 2) it’s wrong. 

It’s dangerous because if our children believe that they are fragile and weak, then they are.  Worse, they become vulnerable to the first strongman who can convince them that he, and he alone, can keep them safe.  Fear is a despot’s greatest ally.    What freedoms will we surrender in exchange for our safety?  For our children’s safety?   

The fragility and weakness narrative is wrong because, time and again, OA students prove it wrong.  Our soggy, shivering trek group, huddled on the wrong side of Grassy Cove Prong may have been miserable, but fragile?  No way.  We were invincible.  We laughed at our situation, passed the Gummy Bears, and leaned into the wind and the rain. We arrived at our destination cold, wet, and exhausted, but with energy and determination to spare, bursting with pride in our accomplishment. 

Every OA graduate since 1995 can tell a similar story. 

Outdoor Academy students learn so much about the world and themselves during their OA semester that it would be difficult to declare any one thing as the most important learning outcome.  I would, however, like to suggest a contender: Every OA student learns to tune out the narrative of fragility and weakness.  They learn to manage risk, not run away from it.  They discover deep resources of strength and resilience that they always possessed but had rarely exercised before coming to Pisgah Forest.  It’s a lesson that will carry them through driving rainstorms—literal and metaphoric—for the rest of their lives. 

Roger Herbert

The Outdoor Academy Director (Fall 2015-Spring 2018)

APR. 24, 2018


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How do spies encrypt messages so they can’t be easily decoded? How can I measure the height of an object using knowledge of angles and trigonometry? Is it possible to use knowledge of mathematics to create art? How many months does it take to pay off $1,345 of credit card debt if I make a monthly payment of $200 and my annual interest rate is 23%? What is the most efficient way to mill a log into usable timber?

Ask five different OA students and you will find at least five different ways of thinking about each of these problems and perhaps even more methods of finding a reasonable answer. These are the sorts of questions our students are chewing on in addition to learning traditional math concepts like long division of polynomialsor graphing trigonometric functions.

Academics at The Outdoor Academy emphasize teaching students how to think critically and deeply about the subject matter. In mathematics this means more than simply learning a new concept and “checking the box” so we don’t “fall behind” other schools and students. It also means grappling with complex problems and trying to apply our clean and precise mathematical concepts to the messy world around us. We do, however, have a duty to meet the diverse curriculum needs of our students’ sending schools. This is accomplished by coordinating with our students’ math teachers and by individually tailoring our instruction to meet those needs. In addition to teaching the required math concepts we also have a duty to prepare our students to face the difficult problems of the future—problems that often involve both quantification and out-of-the-box thinking.

To address this two-sided coin we use a simple tool in all math courses at the Outdoor Academy—a math journal. Throughout the semester students are given journal prompts where they are asked to address complex problems and articulate their process of problem solving. After an initial attempt, students are given formal feedback from their teacher and informal feedback from peers. The feedback helps students to identify valid lines or reasoning and thinking and, more importantly, where a different line of reasoning or thinking could be used to find a more correct answer. Students are not graded simply on whether or not their answer is correct, but how mathematically sound their approach is and how well they have articulated that process on paper using words, numbers, diagrams, graphs, and tables.

The goal of our math journal is to provide a space for students to not only grapple with challenging problems but also feel comfortable with making mistakes and growing from failure. Over the course of the semester students push themselves to identify complexities or inaccuracies, explore unanswered or unanswerable questions, and even challenge their teacher. While this process can be frustrating for students, it often leads to deep understandings of the topic at hand and a sense of satisfaction when things do finally fall into place.

It is not enough, however, to just hear about it from the math teacher; below I have collected a few opinions from current Semester 46 students on their math journals: 

“It can be a little challenging but they provoke a deeper level of thought than presented in typical classes… sometimes they are really confusing but when they click it’s really satisfying”

“[Our teachers] have very high expectations for our math journals which is shown by how harshly they grade them but I feel the grading does reflect the amount of time I put into it…I liked the last one where we had to write our own word problems and scenarios to pay off credit card debt because it was cool to see how it applied to real life situations.”

“Sometimes they’re fun because often in math they don’t tell you how you actually use it but other times they’re sort of annoying because they take a lot of time and some entries ask me to do something different than the way my brain would usually work.”

“Math journals are a great way to engage with math in a way you wouldn’t with the curriculum in your sending school. They also teach you about things like credit cards that force you to apply your math to the real world instead of textbook scenarios…They can also take a looong time.”

“You learn a lot about stuff you would simply not hear anywhere else.”



-Jeffrey Prado

Mathematics Teacher