Class takes to the trails

It’s a Friday morning – 75 degrees and sunny. It’s the kind of day any college student hates spending inside a lecture hall, half-listening to a lesson they’ll forget as soon as they walk outside the door to start their weekend.

For the 20 students enrolled in Jeremiah Davis’s hiking class, spending days like this indoors will not be a concern. Davis’s class is just one of the new outdoor education classes offered at GW for the academic year.

Spawned from programs like Project Exploration and GW Trails, these outdoor education classes offer students the opportunity to experience outdoor living while obtaining credits. The courses will cover everything from camping to the proper use of equipment and food and drink preparation.

Director of the Student Activities Center Tim Miller and Professor Alex Dickman, an instructor in the Department of Exercise Sciences, played crucial roles in the birth of these outdoor courses.

“Basically the GW Trails program was created, and in doing that there was a sort of push … to have credited classes associated with it,” Miller said.

Last spring, Miller taught a general introductory class on outdoor education that taught students an array of outdoor skills. Eighteen students enrolled, and based on positive evaluations, the University decided to offer the class again in spring 2005. Miller said it was originally scheduled for the fall but was later cancelled due to low enrollment caused by fear of cold weather later in the semester. It will now be offered annually in the spring semester only.

Dickman said she coordinates the new classes for non-exercise science majors.

“Tim Miller approached me on it. A lot of universities have outdoor programs. The feeling is we can’t do outdoor (classes) in this urban setting, but we have a lot here in D.C.,” she said.

Both Dickman and Miller credited hard work and positive student feedback with the rapid growth of the GW Trails and outdoor education programs.

“Students find out how wonderful these classes are and they fill up really quickly,” Dickman said. “It can be a life-altering type of class.”

Davis was selected to instruct the first outdoor hiking class offered at GW this semester. Davis is a Presidential Administrative Fellow and the Director of GW Trails, a SAC program that allows students to partake in several outdoor adventure trips throughout the year, including canoeing, hiking and white water rafting.

“Jeremiah has been a great addition to (GW) Trails and SAC,” Miller said. “Trails is only a year and a half old and to be this far along is really a testament to how much work has gone into it.”

The young GW Trails program has already made great strides by influencing the addition of a credited outdoor education class.

“We’re really ahead of the curve, getting credit for learning outdoors,” Davis said. “(University of Maryland), Princeton, Georgetown, Duke … all have outdoor programs.”

He added that while Georgetown’s outdoor education program had been established several years ago and is more comprehensive than GW’s, Georgetown still does not offer credits to the students enrolled in their program. They are merely for recreation.

Davis’s class is held weekly – Friday from 1 to 3 p.m. – and is anything but conventional. For instance, the classroom changes weekly. The 20 enrolled students met at 23rd and Constitution on Sept. 10 for a lesson on map and compass use, topography and map construction. Davis then had his students practice the lesson and turned them loose, map and compass in hand, to plot their course and navigate across the mall to the World War II Memorial.

But the problems with urban hiking soon became apparent – one of the points on the map was off limits, guarded by two policemen.

Every class, freshman to senior, is represented, and the experience levels of the students range from novice to lifelong hikers.

“I was an Eagle Scout and a Boy Scout. I thought this was a great way to spend Friday afternoons,” said sophomore Tyler O’Neal, who added that he has been hiking for years.

“I had never used a compass before,” freshman Ashley Mills said. “It was pretty cool to spend your class period hiking around D.C.”

Davis said there will be many other hikes on less urban trails. There will be longer outdoor day hikes to places such as Old Rag Mountain in Culpepper, Va. and Billy Goat Trail in Great Falls, Md., as well as possible trips to Rock Creek Park.

“Museums and monuments tend to take over, but there are parts in (and around) the District that you wouldn’t believe are in the city,” Davis said. “I hope students leave having enjoyed learning more about the outdoors … and discover that education doesn’t have to take place in the classroom.”

Next spring the University will see the second section of Tim Miller’s Introduction to Outdoor and Environmental Education (Exsc 101.1), which was offered in Spring 2004. Hiking will also be offered again next semester. GW will also open a low-ropes course currently being built on the Mount Vernon Campus behind the Hand Chapel.

The ropes course, accredited by the Association of Challenging Course Technology, will be featured in the inaugural Low Ropes Facilitation class in the fall of 2005.

Davis said the he would like to see the University create a more comprehensive program that would include courses in kayaking, rock climbing and mountain biking. He added that it is a possibility several years down the road, pending accreditation and insurance, but it is certainly something to shoot for.

Miller agreed.

“I’d hope to have every GW student expose themselves to the outdoors at some time in their career,” he said.

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