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Why is Outdoor Lab So Important?

Why is Outdoor Lab So Important?

We have known intuitively for decades that nature and experiences in nature have tangible benefits to our life. Now, increasingly, research shows that experiences in nature reduce stress, improve our physical health, lead to better education outcomes, and build civic-mindedness. In fact, an ever-increasing cohort of businesses, nonprofit organizations, and universities are taking a hard look at the measurable benefits associated with time outdoors. In Colorado, the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office released "Outdoor Rx," REI recently funded a University of Washington "Nature and Health" program, nonprofit organizations such as the Children and Nature Network and the North American Association for Environmental Education continue to coalesce the best academic research on the physical, academic, mental, and communal benefits of nature.

In particular, there is significant evidence demonstrating the value of environmental education in contributing to improved academic achievement, cultivating leadership qualities, improving focus and cognition, fostering a greater sense of environmental stewardship, and imparting 21st-century skills in students. Environmental education has proven to emphasize skills essential for succeeding in tomorrow's world, such as questioning, investigating, defining problems, analyzing, interpreting, developing conclusions, and solving problems. It also supports cooperative learning, critical thinking and discussion, and focuses learners on action strategies with real-world applications.

A recently released report from Stanford University documented 119 peer-reviewed studies published over a 20-year period that measured the impacts of environmental education for K-12 students. The review found clear evidence that environmental education programs provide a variety of benefits. Studies in the review demonstrated that environmental education has led to a number of positive impacts, from improving academic performance, to enhancing critical thinking skills, to building confidence, self-efficacy, autonomy, and leadership. Dr. Nicole Ardoin, the researcher in charge of the review, stated, "There is a mountain of evidence that suggests environmental education is a powerful way to teach students and is one of the most effective ways to instill a passion for learning among students."

Importantly, Outdoor Lab ties to the core curriculum set forth by Jeffco Public Schools. Moreover, Outdoor Lab advances the personal development indicators prioritized through Jeffco Public Schools' overarching strategic plan "Jeffco Generations." They are 1) Content Mastery - Students understand academic concepts and are able to apply and transfer that knowledge into multiple settings. Students must also understand how to access and absorb changing information, updating their thinking and processes. 2) Civic and Global Engagement - Students take active roles in their communities, are prepared to be participatory citizens in our constitutional republic, and are engaged with issues of local, national, and global concern. 3) Self-Direction and Personal Responsibility - Students take initiative, are inquisitive, entrepreneurial, and curious. They persevere through challenging situations, take calculated risks, and stand accountable for their actions. They continually advocate for their own needs and the needs of others. 4) Communication - Students effectively learn to communicate in written, digital, artistic, and oral forms. Students learn to explore and articulate their own points of view while respectfully understanding the perspectives of others. 5) Critical and Creative Thinking - Students learn to evaluate, weigh evidence, and apply reasoned decision-making to problems. Students learn to solve problems using imagination, innovation, and ingenuity. 6) Collaboration and Leading by Influence - Students learn to work together, harness the power of teamwork, and learn the importance of influence to motivate others to get things accomplished. And 7) Agility and Adaptability - Students learn to adapt in response to dynamic situations, environments, and complex problems. Students adjust to disruptions, ambiguity, and uncertainty in themselves, their organizations, and their communities – and thrive in spite of the obstacles.

Outdoor Lab's programming is set up to advance all seven of these personal growth indicators. Moreover, the academic studies referenced above, as well as the research that continues to be published annually, argue that environmental education programs like Outdoor Lab are necessary for advancing the types of personal assets and attributes that Jeffco Public Schools, educators, and youth development experts across the country see as vital for the next generation to thrive. Outdoor Lab is vitally important to our community, not only as a fun rite of passage but as an institution that positively develops our young people into the well-rounded, confident, empathetic leaders of tomorrow.  

The Outdoor Lab experience has enhanced the quality of life for generations of Jeffco youth and has been a moment of joy for thousands who still reflect fondly about their time at Mount Evans or Windy Peak. With the care and dedication of countless teachers, academic leaders, partners, and volunteers, Outdoor Lab has become a careful integration of several proven youth development models, including experiential education, social-emotional learning, life-skills training, outdoor recreation, and mentorship. The curriculum and program format work in tandem to help students realize their leadership potential and uncover personal, interpersonal, and social skills. Though each group experience is unique, we ensure consistency and alignment with our objectives of teaching environmental science, physics, and astronomy while imparting civic-mindedness, self-esteem, self-efficacy, empathy, and personal responsibility.

We increase students' understanding of how natural spaces are connected to their lives back home and can serve as a resource for greater personal wellbeing, learning, and happiness. Our camps provide a safe and supportive environment for youth to develop teamwork, an increased sense of self, an understanding of their place in the world, a passion for lifelong learning, and a commitment to environmental stewardship.

Providing a unifying experience for all students growing up in Jeffco is one of Outdoor Lab's most important priorities. Ensuring the physical and emotional safety of all students from all backgrounds, communities, and cultures within Jeffco is something we take to heart. We strive to ensure all students are actively welcomed and encouraged to participate in the full experience. Increasing the amount of time spent in the natural environment is particularly valuable for young people from under-resourced backgrounds. As one study found, the greater the proportion of disadvantaged students in a region, the less provision of outdoor education experiences in that region. While hard to imagine in a state like Colorado, not every young person has the same opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and take in the benefits of being connected to nature the same way. We address this fact by providing a community of their peers to have these experiences with as classmates, by supporting them with caring adults in the form of their teachers, outfitting them with warm and dry outerwear, and surrounding them with young mentors in the form of community-based high school leaders who support them throughout the week.

Outdoor Lab helps teachers meet standards across multiple disciplines and is woven into existing school curricula. More importantly, it helps students gain much more than knowledge. They gain skills in making a difference and an intrinsic belief that they can. That confidence and empowerment can spill over into other aspects of their lives. The challenges and consequences associated with remote and hybrid learning over the past two years underscore the importance of celebrating Outdoor Lab's aspired outcomes of enhanced critical thinking, authentic problem solving, increased resilience, empathy, and leadership among students. To be sure, the skills and strategies that are imparted in Outdoor Lab can be applied directly to overcome the challenges associated with learning loss, trauma, and isolation tied to the pandemic. In fact, it provides a way to grow and strengthen our students, nurtures a range of new skills and interests, helps realize every student's unique potential, and prepares them for whatever the future brings.