Steve Rubinstein directs the master’s program in Outdoor and Environmental Education. Based at the University’s community service agriculture farm, his vantage extends far beyond the next harvest.
People who call us here at Kellogg Farm Campus often want to know how to live more sustainably. They ask how to help their children spend more time outdoors, engaged in the natural world. As an assistant professor in Outdoor Studies, I pay close attention to these questions.
And as I consider 20 years of OS at APU, I’m thinking about all those people who deep down know that something’s missing in their children’s lives and in their own lives as well. I think I know: It’s abundant opportunity to be in nature, unhurried, agenda-less and free.
Directing the MSOEE program has taught me that people want to learn how to compose a life that feels better than the one they’re living now. I always remind students that our large, talented, mammalian brains have produced so much: We routinely discover knowledge and apply it in engineering, medicine, business, technology and the list goes on. But here in the early days of the 21st century, I think we’re learning that we’ve given up so much as well. Are benefits and losses mutually exclusive? It seems that way.
In student interviews, as I meet MSOEE applicants, and in talking with parents and teachers, I hear stories about what it was like to be raised with ready access to open spaces—where kids could just be kids. People tell us that experiences in nature, especially as children, help make them the people they are today. All these varied people, all these varied stories, tell me with great consistency that unstructured time outdoors matters.
Technological advances present us with freedom to make choices. Those of us fortunate to live in affluent societies need no longer center our lives on subsistence and survival. But in the midst of abundance, progress and the pleasant life, a hole is developing in our collective selves and in our communities.
As MSOEE director, I think a lot about the convergence of our need for nature and our passion for technology. Can teaching people how to be in the natural world become better and easier if we infuse our work with technology? Years of teaching and living here at Kellogg Farm—along with my academic and professional training in psychology, environmental service learning, and outdoor education—make me wonder.
‘I think I know what’s missing: It’s abundant opportunity to be in nature, unhurried, agenda-less and free.’
Consider geocaching, an international outdoor treasure hunt where players use a smart phone or other GPS-enabled device to navigate to a specific set of coordinates. The object? Find and unearth the geocache; nature that you encounter along the way is secondary.
In our National Parks, where attendance is up but amount of time spent in the parks is down, rangers are exploring benefits of carrying tablet computers to enhance interpretive talks. Some experts suggest issuing a tablet to each park visitor, empowering us to look and learn beyond what even the most capable ranger could show and tell. Meanwhile groups like Audubon Society are using handheld interactive devices to recruit digital-savvy new birders.
Each of these developments—and many more like them—pose important research questions for our MSOEE students: Can technology enhance nature? Should it? Are nature-infused social media the answer to “something’s missing”?
I don’t have the answers, but I believe our MSOEE students will help find them.
Projects here at Kellogg range from developing farm-based curriculum for schoolchildren to investigating use of dray horses in sustainable agriculture. Just 45 minutes northeast of APU’s main campus, the farm is an inspiring place, encompassing open fields, northern forest, spring fens, winding trails and abundant food crops—all within view of snowcapped Chugach Mountains.
Books like Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” and websites maintained by the Children and Nature Network document effects of mediated outdoor experience; immersed in nature, MSOEE students who live, work and study at the farm know firsthand that outdoor experiences benefit people. As more and more of us seek to be in nature and understand its place in a fast-paced technological age, OS at APU is helping solve the “something’s missing” problem—one MSOEE graduate at a time.
By Steve Rubinstein — This article originally appeared in the APU Summit Magazine, Summer 2013.