Scott Ellis has infectious enthusiasm for getting outside to learn and explore in nature. He taught at the Cardigan Mt. School in Canaan, NH, the Greenwood School in Putney, VT, the Keystone Science school in Keystone, CO, and the Daniel Webster Council Boy Scouts of America. And Scott was recently hired to launch and lead the new Thetford Outdoor Program at Thetford Academy (TA).
The mission of the new Thetford Outdoor Program is to ignite academic curiosity and foster environmental stewardship through outdoor exploration, recreation, and project-based, experiential learning.
“We hope that our students become environmental advocates and leaders, and make a lifelong connection to the natural world.” says Scott. “And we hope that they will gain confidence and build leadership skills that will serve them well beyond their high school years.”
Each student’s capstone project will focus on creating shared community resources. For example, this fall, the class is working on completion of an interpretive trail that identifies 10 different species of trees in TA’s forest with signs and descriptions.
In the future, students might create a GIS map of invasive species on TA property, a field guide of common mushrooms found in the area, a children’s book involving the history of a patch of woods, or a presentation to the community on an area of interest for the student.
With its 295-acre campus on Thetford Hill, Thetford Academy is uniquely positioned to make outdoor education a focus of its curriculum.
In 2014, TA signed a 10-year agreement with the State of Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation to take over management of the Thetford Hill State Park. At the same time, the school received an invitation from the Woodbury Foundation to apply for grant funding to support an outdoor education program at TA. Thetford Academy has a long tradition of experiential learning and place-based education, and the generosity of the Woodbury Foundation allowed the school to think bigger and more creatively about outdoor learning.
TA initially referred to the program as “Environmental Studies and Outdoor Education Initiative.” This year, with the launch of the Environmental Studies and Outdoor Education half-day course and the hire of Scott Ellis as coordinator of the program, TA rebranded the program as the Thetford Outdoor Program (TOP). In addition to the half-day class, TOP includes: outdoor units integrated into a wide variety of classes across the curriculum, an outdoor adventure team (TOP Outdoor Adventure), an Outdoor Club, and a Nordic Skiing club.
Thetford Academy’s Environmental Studies and Outdoor Education course is an interdisciplinary, project-based academic course that meets from 12PM-3PM each day. The course takes advantage of TA’s vast natural resources, and students spend most of their class time outside.
Students enrolled in the course for the full school year will earn 2 Science credits, 1 English credit and 1 Elective credit. The class is open to all Thetford Academy sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Sophomores taking the class for the whole year will earn their required Biology credit as one of the Science credits. Students can also enroll in the course for half the year. If they choose this option, they will earn 1 Science credit, ½ English credit and ½ Elective credit.
The course uses field experiments and exploration, reading and reflection, independent study and completion of capstone project to teach ecological literacy and build skills in leadership and presentation.
Students take on topics like forest ecology, snow science, geology, and fluvial dynamics. They will learn about photosynthesis, geologic time, life cycles, human impact on the environment, natural selection, biological evolution, weather, and climate change.
Students will read and reflect on classic and contemporary outdoor-focused literature including Walden by Thoreau, Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels, The Trap by John Smelcer and other selected readings.
At the end of each semester students will complete a capstone project of their choice. Each project will focus on creating a community resource and sharing what they have learned with a broader audience.
Overall, students in this class will gain a deeper connection to the natural world and what role they play in that world.
The vision for the TOP program includes expansion of the program to include a second section of the class, and create a path for students to take a multidisciplinary, project-based outdoor course for half the day for 3 years of their high school education. In addition, TA hopes to develop the recently purchased property adjacent to TA’s campus to house the TOP outdoor program. They have received a $100,000 grant to start that process, and hope to cultivate additional support for this effort.