Why to Get a Degree in Outdoor Education

©istockphoto/Terry J Alcorn

While you may not necessarily need a degree to pursue a career in the outdoors, the resources and experience of a degree in Outdoor Education can really go a long way. These degrees won’t just help you find the right job to start with, they can teach you to develop a sustainable career in the outdoors. If you need more reasons to pursue a degree in Outdoor Education or related fields, thankfully there are universities and colleges across the nation happy and willing to give some good advice on why you should spend your time in outdoors while pursuing higher education.

The Clymb: What draws people to pursue a degree in Outdoor Education?

Andrew G. Bentley, Ph.D.: “While the course work varies between programs, my experience suggests the central appeal of a degree in outdoor or adventure education is a yearning to develop an understanding of the relationship between nature and humans, and an interest to actually spend time outdoors further developing said relationship. While it is helpful if students have already begun on a path of practice in a particular outdoor activity to develop familiarity and competence outdoors, and possibly have completed a wilderness medicine first aid course, the most important preparation likely has to do more with personality than anything else.

When I ask first-year students where they intend to spend their waking hours upon graduation, no one has ever replied, “Behind a desk,” or “Inside, where it’s warm,” reflecting the dynamic nature of the career field. Possessing a high tolerance for adversity is a must and students who thrive in this field are those who relish the consistent pleasure and risk that tomorrow will be different from today.”

– Andrew G. Bentley, Ph.D., Program Director and Assistant Professor, Adventure Education Program, Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. Green Mountain College was ranked the “Best Outdoor School Rating” by Outside Magazine in 2014, the first college to reach climate neutrality, and it was just voted the second greenest school in the nation by the Princeton Review. They offer an Environmental Liberal Arts core sequence with a wide selection of outdoor-centered majors including Adventure Education, which pushes students to focus on themselves, the outdoor industry, and the skills needed to succeed.

©istockphoto/Flavio Vallenari

The Clymb: Are there any hands-on or in-the-field classes offered within an Outdoor Education degree?

Matthew H. Ebbott: “Most of them are! Field Classes are based around Outdoor Skills—water, snow and land—and how we lead them and how to educate others about these environments. These classes have students practice the techniques of these fields, earn certifications that add to their marketability, and use these skills to instruct local school groups. Creating hands-on and in-the-field classes and experiences for our students is part of our educational philosophy at Western and most schools that offer an Outdoor Education degree.”

– Matthew H. Ebbott, Senior Lecturer, Recreation & Outdoor Education and the Environment & Sustainability program, Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. A world-class education deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, Western State University has a wide variety of curriculum for their students ranging from accounting to sociology, and most notable for future outdoor leaders of America, a Recreation and Outdoor Education program which features classes like Principles of Sports Management, Entrepreneurship and Commercial Recreation and Leave No Trace Educator.

The Clymb: What kind of experience should someone have before pursuing an Outdoor Education degree?

Elizabeth K. Andre, Ph.D.: “You’ll get the most out of your Outdoor Education experience if you enter school with a basic level of comfort in the outdoors gained from either personal trips, outing clubs, summer camps or courses with wilderness schools like Outward Bound. If you don’t have much experience in the outdoors, you can still enroll in an Outdoor Education degree program, but you’ll need to be deliberate about quickly building your outdoor comfort level by joining the school outing club, participating in recreation programs and enrolling in basic outdoor skills courses. You’ll also benefit from any experiences you’ve had working with the public, with groups or in a leadership position, especially if you had the opportunity to teach or coach. Even without any of this background, however, a good academic adviser will be able to work with you to design a plan to help you reach your career goals.”

– Elizabeth K. Andre, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Outdoor Education Nature and Culture Department, Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. For over 40 years Northland College has blended together an environmental focus with their Liberal Arts routine, making them a leader in outdoor education, and still to this day, education at Northland College involves a healthy dose of environmental appreciation. The Outdoor Education program at Northland College has students practice kayak rescues, snowshoe in the Chequamegon National Forest and develop the skills and savvy to not only survive in the outdoor industry but thrive in all aspects of life. For additional information check out the Northland College Outdoor Education Facebook Page.


The Clymb: What are some of the different aspects of an Outdoor Education degree and how do these different aspects translate into jobs after graduation?

Chris McCart, Ph.D.: “Outdoor education is a broad field with diverse vocational tracks. It can be subdivided into adventure education, environmental education and interpretation. At Black Hills State University, we feel it is most beneficial to the student to be trained across all aspects of our field. We have a core curriculum that builds a strong foundation in theory and practice, and then our students select a vocational area of specialization via service learning, internships and elective courses. Our graduates are working as naturalists, park interpretive rangers, residential environmental education program coordinators, park managers, natural resource management agency program coordinators, middle school teachers, ski area staff, recreation center programmers, dude ranch hosts, trainers, wilderness educators and more.”

– Chris McCart, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Outdoor Education, Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota. The only thing perhaps better than the outdoor education at Black Hills State University is the numerous outdoor opportunities you can find in its hometown of Spearfish. Located in the heart of the Black Hills of South Dakota, Black Hills State University has the resources you need to get outside, and through their Outdoor Education Bachelor Degree, they can give you the knowledge and know-how for excelling in the outdoor environment. From classes like Fly Fishing to coursework in Zoology, Black Hills State University sets up the students for success in the outdoors.

The Clymb: What are some of the jobs available for a graduate with an Outdoor Education degree?

Laurie Gullion: “Our students head in many different directions with jobs—wilderness therapy where they work in a clinical setting with adolescents who have behavioral issues, commercial outdoor companies like REI, non-profit outdoor organizations like Outward Bound, independent and charter schools with outdoor programs, medical positions as EMTs. Some students even have an entrepreneurial flair and start their own company; others get a master’s degree in education and take the experiential approaches into public school classrooms.

It’s a myth that there aren’t full-time, well-paying jobs in the outdoors. Most outdoor companies—even summer camps—need to operate year-round or nearly year-round to survive financially. And our students can also move quickly from field positions to program coordinator positions in a front office, which makes raising a family a lot easier.”

– Laurie Gullion, Clinical Assistant Professor, Outdoor Education, University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire. At 34 years old, the Kinesiology: Outdoor Education program at University of New Hampshire is one of the oldest in the country and was the first university program to be accredited by the Association for Experiential Education. As a result of the longevity of their program, University of New Hampshire’s alumni are well spread out through the country and have greatly benefited from the program’s requirements to graduate, such as the 100 hours of face-to-face outdoor leading experience, the 128 required credit hours of a wide-bodied curriculum and the hands-on experiential approach to learning taken by the University of New Hampshire.