Grants Will Help Researchers Explore Impact of Outdoor Education

Researchers from several universities received a $1.4 million grant to study the impact Outward Bound programs have on students’ character.
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  • A $1.4 million grant will help researchers study the effects of outdoor education on students.
  • The project includes researchers from Clemson University, Penn State University, the University of Utah and the nonprofit outdoor education group Outward Bound
  • The research will center around how Outward Bound programs across the globe affect students in different ways.
  • The project will take place over a three-year period.

Rock climbing in South America’s Patagonia. Canoeing on the Great Lakes. Backpacking in the Appalachian Mountains.

These life-changing experiences might not immediately come to mind when someone thinks about higher education, but over the next three years, researchers from several universities will be studying the effects of outdoor experiential learning on students’ character.

The John Templeton Foundation this month awarded a $1.4 million grant to study outdoor education to researchers from Clemson University, Penn State University, the University of Utah and the nonprofit outdoor education group Outward Bound, according to a release.

The research will largely take place around the dozens of outdoor education programs offered by Outward Bound, which offers a wide range of experiential programs in 34 countries. The three-year project will highlight the ways experiences in different regions and cultures affect students’ character, Penn State Associate Professor of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management Pete Allison said.

“As we live in an increasingly globalized world and work in increasingly diverse communities, understanding the cultural influences on character becomes more important,” Allison, the director of Penn State’s Kurt Hahn Consortium for Values and Experiential Learning, said. “But incorporating lessons from other cultures is complex. How do we maintain and respect different cultures while building global citizens? Generous funding from the Templeton Foundation will help us answer that question.”

Theresa Melton, an assistant professor of youth development leadership at Clemson University, noted that Outward Bound programs vary widely across the globe — and said they provide a unique opportunity to view the ways the programs affect students in different regions and cultures.

“We see it as a great opportunity to better understand how character is defined around the world and how various cultures have made the Outward Bound model work,” Melton said.

Outward Bound programs operate in a variety of ways across the program’s multinational network, according to the announcement. Programs based in Taiwan, for instance, offer “highly intense, one- or two-day courses,” while many courses in New Zealand take place over three weeks.

Jim Sibthorp, a professor of parks, recreation and tourism at the University of Utah, said outdoor education programs operate “within a cultural context.”

“As a global leader in outdoor education, Outward Bound is the ideal research partner for us to examine cross-cultural outdoor education and youth programs that build character,” Sibthorp said. “Countries around the globe approach outdoor education differently, and we have a lot to learn from these diverse approaches to youth development."

Angela Duckworth, the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading global expert in character development, will serve as an advisor on the project..

"Outward Bound is one of the only programs whose benefits on psychological development seem to last — or even grow — for years,” Duckworth said. “I cannot think of a worthier pursuit than figuring out the magic of Outward Bound. The implications for character development are inestimable.