'Environmental Studies 101' on a Traveling School Bus in a Unique Outdoor Education Program, Students Take a Collaborative Approach to Ecological Issues in the US

By Sheila Polson, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 1995 | Go to article overview

'Environmental Studies 101' on a Traveling School Bus in a Unique Outdoor Education Program, Students Take a Collaborative Approach to Ecological Issues in the US


Sheila Polson, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When Diane Becker began her alternative outdoor-education program in 1969, she was an environmental activist and a rebel. Traveling cross-country in an old school bus and living outdoors, she set out with students to preach environmentalism and fight the system.

Now, 26 years later, Ms. Becker remains the dynamic force behind her pioneering concept, which in 1978 became the Audubon Expedition Institute (AEI), a highly regarded, accredited undergraduate and graduate-level education program of the National Audubon Society.

AEI students and faculty still travel by bus throughout the United States and Canada, living and learning in the field, and many students consider themselves environmental activists. But they are no longer rebels fighting the system. Instead, says Becker, her goal is to foster leaders who are inquisitive, skilled in techniques such as collaboration and consensus-building, and motivated to effect change - both social and environmental - through the political process.

"In the early '70s, when we met with the resource people in the field, we would sit and argue with them. We felt we had all the answers," remembers Becker, who after 18 years of bus life and teaching now directs the AEI program out of its administrative offices in Belfast, Maine. "Each year when we visited sugar-industry people in Florida, for example, we got into the same argument; we weren't changing their minds, and vice versa."

Gradually Becker realized that though students were learning from their experiences, most issues were too complex to discuss in terms of right and wrong. The program needed to get away from an "us versus them" mentality. "It wasn't a sudden awakening or anything," she says, "but by the '80s we began to go into meetings with people, even those we might view as adversaries, with a different approach." Instead of preaching, they began listening and asking questions, an attitude that Becker is convinced has kept the institute at the cutting edge in the world of education.

What hasn't changed since 1969 is Becker's conviction that experiential education, via the mobile classroom, is a very effective mode of learning.

It is a conviction shared by a growing number of educators says Charlene Cochrane, director for the Lesley Audubon program at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., the institution that credits AEI.

"The AEI model of experiential ... education is a unique and visionary way for students to learn. What makes it so effective is that it also very academic," she says.

Karen Warren, an outdoor instructor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and board member of the Association of Experiential Education, teaches courses in experiential education but says that given the time constraints of the traditional classroom setting, it is impossible for her to duplicate the full learning experience that AEI provides. "AEI is one of the premium experiential learning programs in the country. They are able to totally involve students in the community in a way other college programs haven't been able to do."

Each school term, four AEI buses, each with about 20 students and four faculty, travel in different regions of the US and Canada. This fall, buses are in the Gulf of Maine region (Newfoundland to Cape Cod), Texas, and the Northwest (from British Columbia to California).

In each region, students stop and camp where they explore a particular ecosystem, experience a different culture, such as native American, or research a developing environmental or political issue. …

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