Adventurous Learning with Real-World Impact | St. Lawrence University

Adventurous Learning with Real-World Impact

The St. Lawrence University First-Year Program During COVID-19

After months of planning and preparing for a semester at St. Lawrence unlike any other in recent memory, Associate Dean of the First Year Sarah Barber feels inspired. She knows that this year’s First-Year Program (FYP) instructors are uniquely qualified to navigate the challenges of remote and hybrid teaching during a global pandemic. 

“Our core values as a program center on slowly building students up to do the tough work of developing college-level argumentative, analytical, and critical thinking skills,” Barber says. “The work [our instructors] always do to scaffold writing and speaking assignments so that students can gradually expand essays and presentations step by step is especially important in hybrid and remote classroom settings, and faculty have really re-emphasized those elements as they redesign their courses.”

COVID-19 won’t stop St. Lawrence’s FYP, one of the oldest and most robust living-learning programs in the country, from moving forward this year, but it will look a little different. As instructors prepared to teach in new modalities, they also planned their curriculum with the moment in mind, and will seek to address the converging issues and conversations taking place around the world as the Class of 2024 begins their college journey.

No Screen Required

“If this fall doesn’t represent one of the best adventurous learning opportunities possible, I don’t know what does.”

First-Year Program Instructor Devin Farkas is used to seeing his curriculum as an adventure. He teaches An Outdoor State of Mind, an FYP that covers topics from Antarctic expeditions to the intersections of wilderness, race, and identity, and equips students with tangible skills to embark on their own outdoor adventures.

In his course, Farkas teaches from the work of outdoor education scholars Dr. Simon Beames and Dr. Mike Brown. They coined the concept of “adventurous learning” in 2016. It’s an idea that Farkas usually covers in his coursework, but the pandemic has given it a whole new meaning this semester. Now, it’s more than a theory.

“For an adventure to yield learning it must have an uncertain outcome. It must be authentic and not contrived, and it requires those undertaking it to develop a mastery of new skills. And in a true adventure everyone has agency,” says Farkas. “No one, neither teacher nor learner, has more authority on learning through a pandemic—we all have agency in steering our course. We all need to master new skills.”

Farkas is passionate about increasing access to the outdoors and knew that the experiential learning component of his FYP couldn’t be lost in his efforts to adapt. While in-class discussions will happen via Zoom, he’s reimagined the outdoor experiences he relies on to reinforce learning. Now, his course will consist of more self-orienteering.

“Because I can’t be present with them, it means I need to guide them from afar,” says Farkas.

This fall, he’ll record video demonstrations of certain tasks, like tying a knot, reading a map, or using a compass, for students to replicate and complete on their own.

“Remote teaching is not the same thing as virtual or online teaching. The remote learning environment doesn’t have to be fully on a screen,” he says. “As an educator, I firmly believe that hands-on experiential learning is the best way to engage a learner.”

Farkas also wants students to reflect on the therapeutic role of access to the outdoors during times of extreme stress and uncertainty. His students will create a blog to record their takeaways from excursions and their critical reflections on other course material. Farkas hopes these blogs will act as guides for people who want to engage with the outdoors during a pandemic.

“I think my students will be excited to work on something real that reaches beyond the classroom,” says Farkas. “Something that has the potential to have a positive impact in our lives.”

The Power of Objects

Like Farkas, Project Support Assistant for Digital Scholarship Nicole Roché hopes her FYP, We Are Our Stories, will help students navigate and potentially impact the world beyond her classroom. She’ll be teaching in a hybrid format, which entails in-person instruction and discussion with alternating synchronous remote activities.

Roché’s FYP students will complete assignments related to her campus-wide storytelling program the “Object Project,” a grant-funded endeavor which aims to collect short recordings of individuals detailing the significance of objects from home while exploring personal identity and oral tradition. In her class this semester, she’ll ask students to share photos of objects that encapsulate their experiences in 2020. 

“Our experiences always matter, but we are also living in a significant moment in history right now. The ‘Object Project’ is just one opportunity to help students to recognize that and think about how to record and reflect on their experiences,” she says.

In addition to the need for increased safety and social distancing measures in the classroom, the pandemic exposed a demand for new and expanded interactive digital capabilities. Roché has used her summer to investigate technology that will enrich both in-person and remote teaching for instructors across campus and elevate the Object Project. These include augmented and virtual reality, text analysis, and story mapping platforms.

“We are also experimenting with photogrammetry and 3D scanning processes, which collect data points that are used to create 3D models of physical objects, architecture, and locations. The resulting models have many potential applications—such as creating virtual tours of campus buildings or other locations—but one primary function is to provide enhanced access to physical objects related to various fields of study,” she says.

Though objects used in the classroom or to get through day-to-day life may seem mundane, Roché believes they can be quite powerful. And she, like Farkas, sees the potential for her curriculum to help students impact their communities beyond the classroom.

“Objects can jumpstart storytelling,” she says. “Storytelling is so important right now because it is a meaning-making process. We need ways of understanding our place in the world or in a situation, and that is especially true during difficult times such as a global pandemic. Whether telling your own stories or listening to others’, storytelling has been shown to have many benefits, including increasing self-esteem, promoting emotional healing, and fostering empathy, compassion, and understanding.”

Storytelling is also a gateway to productive conversations on what can be challenging topics, like inequality in the American justice system, racism, and police brutality, and Roché is excited to help her students harness their voices and unpack these critical issues.

“I think the social isolation necessitated by the pandemic has brought an increased awareness to longstanding issues in this country that affect and trouble our students,” she says. “I suspect our students will have an increased eagerness to discuss and engage with these issues in the classroom. I look forward to having those conversations with them.”