The Power of Outdoor Education

Head of School Jessica Donovan explains why Mountain Campus is integral to our curriculum and shares our priorities. 

Friday afternoon, as the third graders climbed off of the Mountain Campus bus, threw their tired bodies over their bags and waited for their parents to catch up in the parking lot, I was reminded once again about the importance of outdoor education in the education of the whole child.

City kids

Our kids are city kids. By middle school many of them know how to ride buses, navigate Metro and easily negotiate metal detectors as they enter museums, yet a spider or the possibility of dirt in their beds can  easily throw them. The experiences they gain and lessons they learn about themselves, each other and the environment while they are in Mountain Campus, a place where they feel ownership and connection, are invaluable to their sense of self in the environment. The time they spend there helps them see how they can challenge themselves to do more than they ever thought possible.

Experiential learning

At both Sheridan campuses, we incorporate experiential learning into our curriculum because we know this kind of learning promotes enduring understandings that last beyond a test or assessment. Through experiential learning,  children  build on prior knowledge and creativity to make new connections to the world they know. The students’ experiences at Mountain Campus help  build their self-confidence, contribute to their sense of themselves in the world, and affirm that the curriculum they learn at the City Campus is connected to the wider world.

Take, for example, this last third grade trip. In science at City Campus, the students have been learning how scientists use observation to classify different typ

es of rocks. This is part of a larger lesson about how rocks tell a story and help us understand our changing world. Ms. Grinberg took advantage of the Mountain Campus landscape to design a scavenger hunt for the kids. Armed with hand lenses and a list of qualities to search for, a hike became a science adventure. To hear one par

As a part of our Strategic Priorities, we are continuing to look at how we can reaffirm our commitment to outdoor education and expand environmental education as an essential part of Sheridan’s academic excellence. To this end, we are looking for more ways to expand the role of Mountain Campus beyond outdoor education — looking at how we teach environmental education and sustainability using the connection to our own land in Virginia. This year, we are piloting Middle School Sustainability Labs. These labs are year-long Mountain Campus programs that integrate environmental education, social justice, science curricular connections, and citizen science projects to help students look critically at environmental systems and the impacts of global climate change.

ent tell it, “It was like the kids were just going for a walk and then all of the sudden they were on fire and excited to find what they had been learning. Their eyes were opened to the environment around them.” After the scavenger hunt, Ms. Grinberg took the kids to the field to tell them a story about the mountains surrounding them. Did you know the Appalachians were once as tall as the Himalayas? Our third graders were able to see the story that the mountains told about the history of our ever-changing earth in a place where they feel connected to the land.

Expanding Mountain Campus beyond outdoor education

Through hands-on work, consultation with local experts and non-profits, and case studies, students will research, experiment, and plan for action to address a specific issue, and then take action at Mountain Campus. As part of the labs students will:

  • Identify and learn about the impacts of climate change on environmental systems
  • Look at the environmental, social, economic, and political considerations of a specific issue
  • Consider the real world implications of that issue at Mountain Campus, in DC, and globally
  • Use science skills to research and conduct experiments to develop a deep understanding of the topic
  • Plan for action and present to the community

2017 – 2018 Sustainability Lab pilot courses

The Sustainability Lab pilot courses for this year include:

Water Works: Water Works is a deep dive into understanding how we use, monitor and trade our most precious natural resource. We’ll examine local water issues within DC and the Chesapeake Bay to understand the role water plays within a community for food, industry, transportation and energy. Solutions for sharing clean, safe water from around the world will be discussed and we’ll look at what can happen to a community wh

en the water dries up or is no longer usable. Issues within our own water will be explored as we test the quality of water at Mountain Campus and plan to implement more sustainable practices.

Garden to Table: Garden to Table is a close look at food sustainability, and the environmental, social, political, and economic issues related to food access. Students will examine where Mountain Campus’ food comes from, looking at the issues and impact of transporting food rather than using local food sources. Then, utilizing local experts, students will explore sustainable gardening, and plan for a garden at Mountain Campus. After conducting research and experiments, students will draft a proposal and work together with Camp Horizons to get this project off the ground!

Energy In Your World: In this seminar, students will explore concepts related to sustainable energy.  Deliberate attention will be given to renewable and nonrenewable sources of power, our energy use at Sheridan and Mountain Campus, and policies in other countries.  Participants will have a choice to research LEED architecture and homes of the future, alternative fuels, or hybrid cars.  Students will complete the requirements of “Think Global, Build Local” at the National Building Museum.  Later, competing teams of students will build a different model city where each structure generates electricity from solar cells or wind turbines.  The winning team will connect their structural designs with the greatest energy output (highest voltage and current) as recorded by an energy sensor.

Looking ahead

We are now halfway through our fall trips. Our students and teachers have come back reporting the ways in which they have challenged themselves both physically and emotionally. They are returning with a deeper connection with the Mountain Campus staff, joy in spending time out of doors with their classmates and teachers, and of course stories of big, disgusting bugs! As we continue to grow the program to integrate the learning at both campuses, we know that we are lucky to have such a rich environment that the students can return to year after year to see not only their own growth but also the growth of our changing planet.