In response to a host of developing societal issues, scientists across a wide spectrum of disciplines are studying the human-nature connection and what happens when we spend time in or become disconnected from the natural world. In this series, we’ll take a look at research findings and anecdotes from past Tremont participants related to the health, learning and behavioral benefits of experiences rooted in the natural world.

The featured article this week, “Into The Field,” by Amanda Giracca and appearing in Orion Magazine, highlights the lack of experiential education culture at the university level. Ironic, that young adults are sent out into the real world to attend colleges and universities, where many of them will have few, if any, real world experiences built into 4 or more years of coursework.

Experiential learning can be defined as an individual having personally meaningful, largely unscripted interactions with the living world. We experience by interacting first hand with subjects, and we learn by incorporating the impressions left by our experiences with our preexisting worldview and knowledge base. Within experiential learning, content such as vocabulary, statistical facts and historical relevance can be sprinkled in by the facilitator, but information takes a backseat to the sensory and emotive experiences at hand.

In the attached article, the author quotes Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who wrote that, “Education is suffering from narration sickness,” in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire was referring to the modern acceptance in education of teachers feeding information while students passively take it in. In other words, content delivery that is devoid of experience.

The “narration sickness” is systemic throughout all levels of education, and in our adult lives too. Consider our new second nature in turning to Siri or Google for immediate answers to unknowns. We passively take in answers as they appear or are vocalized through our glowing, blue screens. No interaction with the world or struggle for comprehension. No experience necessary.

Meaningful experiences lead to personal transformation. Personal transformation leads to less focus on the self and an increased sense of empathy. Empathy leads to ethics of environmental stewardship and community well-being, as well as a consideration for future generations. Isn’t that our highest hope for our students, to care about the world around them and be intentional about their path through life?

All Tremont participants experience programs that focus on field study, personal inquiry and thorough reflection. While Tremont is most often associated with students at the 5th-8th grade levels, we also host a number of university consortiums each year for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as numerous courses for lifelong learners. For most of our college student participants, their program at Tremont is the only, or one of a very few, courses during their years in higher education that are fully experiential in presentation.  

There are higher education institutions that offer robust options for experiential learning throughout an undergraduate or graduate program. Many others have made it a priority recently to infuse programs with opportunities for real world experience. Tremont is proud to claim faculty who’ve graduated from acclaimed experiential learning institutions, such as Prescott College, University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, Middlebury College and Appalachian State University. It is from our collective background, and continued training at Tremont, that we draw the inspiration and expertise to design and implement experiential opportunities in higher education, and for adults from all walks of life, in one of the world’s premiere classrooms, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.