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An Outdoors Education


A group of 20 students and staff from Hamilton College attended the annual Northeast Regional Conference of the Association for Experiential Education (AEE) in Becket, Mass., from April 17-19. The weekend was packed with games, workshops, speeches and countless opportunities to interact with and learn from educators from across the Northeast.

What is AEE? Andrew Jillings, director of outdoor leadership at Hamilton and a long-term member of AEE described the weekend as “a coming together of like-minded people who are interested in all forms of learning by doing, particularly but not exclusively, in the outdoors. It is a place where a school teacher committed to having her students create their own learning environment finds philosophical common ground with a whitewater kayaking instructor.”

This year Jillings served on the 10-volunteer host committee and worked as the conference convener collaborating with the rest of the committee to plan activities, solicit applications to present workshops, secure a keynote speaker, manage registrations, and put together a schedule for the whole weekend. “It’s important to give back to the community that nurtured me. I wouldn’t be here today without the AEE and it’s only right that I give back,” Jillings said of his role on the host committee.

Hamilton is typically well represented at AEE and this year was no different. A group of Outing Club leaders and officers as well as leaders from Hamilton’s Adirondack Adventure and Outreach Adventure orientation programs–15 in all–made the trek to western Massachusetts.

Jillings commented on the value in having students attend the conference saying, “it’s entirely selfish to bring students. I get as much out of watching students’ eyes go the size of dinner plates as they realize that their tribe of like-minded people is even bigger than they could have imagined, as students gain from interacting with the countless teachers at the conference.”

Students also found the experience to be very powerful and highly worthwhile. It was Emma Reynolds’ ’17 first year at the conference and she particularly enjoyed the ways in which the many presenters framed the task of working as an educator. She described her experience saying, “I found the many different metaphors used for being a teacher in experiential education to be incredibly meaningful. One woman used the image of being a street-sweeper smoothing the path of students’ experiences, which was deeply moving for me.”

Charlie Ross ’17 found this second time at the conference equally valuable as the first. “It was nice to see similar people from last year and I went to several workshops that brought a fresh perspective to topics that I had learned about last year. This year there was a new focus on LGBTQ issues with several workshops on topics such as creating inclusive spaces and I think that added a lot to the conference,” said Ross.

Of course, just as much learning took place outside of the workshops and he noted that “some of my favorite moments from the conference were the conversations sparked by individual workshops that carried over into conversations over the dinner table or at night around the campfire.”

Reuben Dizengoff ’15 took the conference as an opportunity to not only learn from others but to give back and hone his skills as a speaker by presenting his own workshop on the “Intersectionality of Experience.”

The weekend was a great opportunity for students to learn a great deal and be exposed to the broader world of experiential education; everyone left excited to try their hand at teaching and return next year to talk with the many mentors at the conference.

In concluding, Jillings emphasized that although a great deal of experiential education does take place in the outdoors, the scope of the field is far broader. “The conference goes way beyond the outdoors and it includes anyone who thinks education should be engaging and pedagogically open. It’s about the style of education more than the location where that education takes place,” he said.

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