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.

©istockphoto/Sjoerd-van-der-Wal

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.