After students take the TCAP this month, Silverdale Baptist Academy will have a firmer grasp on how its outdoor education program is impacting learning. But administrators say they already have a pretty good idea of what the numbers will show.
They can cite numerous studies that show students' test scores radically improved following the transition to similar models in places including California and Norway. The Nordic country served as a model for the program at Silverdale, which even sent administrator Val Raley there to study it firsthand.
The true measure of success, however, is on the kids' faces, said Al Rogers, director of outdoor education.
"Kids and teachers are a lot happier," he said.
The program, now in its first full year following a soft launch last school year, reinforces traditional academic lessons through the practice of doing, and having kids do projects outside further reinforces the lesson by offering real world correlations along with the benefits of nature itself.
"The basic [goal] is experiential learning," Rogers said. "How kids experience something stays with them a lot more. I'm starting to see some issues with kids just not knowing how to problem solve when it comes to some things because everything they've done has been on paper."
The model has been incorporated across all subjects and all grades, and Rogers plans to continue expanding it.
"My goal is to add a new outdoor class every year of some sort," he said.
This year's addition is an outdoor history class that sends high schoolers to places like the Chickamauga Battlefield or Point Park to discuss their significance as they hike to the places where the events actually occurred.
Even the school's Latin teacher is holding classes outside to help students with memorization, which Rogers said is aided by the "fresh stimuli" of the outdoor setting.
"Our Latin teacher is probably outside more than anybody," said Rogers, who has a team of 15 teachers and administrators at the school helping to continuously devise more opportunities to meld academics with the outdoors.
To that end, he is also hoping to get all of the school's elementary teachers certified this year through Project WILD, a nationwide wildlife-focused conservation education program for K-12 educators.
"When dealing with incorporating outdoor education, one of the things teachers struggle mostly with is knowledge of activities they can use to enforce [learning]," Rogers said.
This can be more difficult at the higher grade levels, he added, but Rogers said all the teachers have been supportive. For mathematics, students have placed objects in the school's creek to figure out rate of flow; for English, they go outside to experience the nature in their books.
Rogers said a portion of experiential learning is opportunistic learning. Instead of closing down for the eclipse in August 2017 like many other schools did, they threw a party for students and had a picnic. They ordered over 1,000 pairs of eclipse glasses and took advantage of the rare experience to teach about the phenomenon and make it fun for students.
Envision Ecology has visited the school to examine an endangered species of crayfish in the campus creek. Students helped with sampling and were taught how to identify between different species.
Students have even learned basic survival skills, like how catch fish, build fires, properly handle knives and milk cows. During one outing, the school teamed up with BigPig Outdoors to teach first aid. A teacher submerged herself in freezing river water, risking hypothermia, and had students nurse her back to health.
"I did not endorse that," Rogers said, "[but] I'm so proud of [our teachers] and their willingness to do more."
The program has had a strong start and received positive feedback from students, teachers and administrators, said Head of School Becky Hansard. She attributes the success to research, not rushing into putting an outdoor program in place, and having teachers that believe fully in the program.
"Rogers could have started it when he got here 12 years ago, but we weren't ready with educating our parents and our teachers," Hansard said. "To do outdoor [education], you have to have buy-in from your faculty and staff."
She and Rogers said the community has also been extremely supportive.
"I believe they really see the need for this too," Rogers said, listing community partners including the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Zoo, Audubon Acres and Booker T. Washington State Park. "We think we're on the cutting edge of something great."
Email Kaitlin Colon at firstname.lastname@example.org.