Experiential learning helps students discover 'grande passion'

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It was at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center where Noel Bond, an undergraduate student majoring in recreation, park and tourism management, recognized his true passion and identified his career path.

“My experiences through Shaver’s Creek have helped me realize that I enjoy informal experiential education and hope to gain a job that allows me to work outside and inspire others to learn and discover,” Bond said.

Shaver’s Creek, an outdoor education field lab and nature center in Petersburg, Huntingdon County, gives students a chance to work in nature while assisting and educating the community.

Bond’s involvement at Shaver’s Creek began as a backpacking leader for Aurora, the freshman outdoor orientation program, and the Student Engagement and Experiential Discovery (SEED) Semester through which Shaver’s Creek becomes the classroom for a semester-long experiential journey of outdoor leadership and environmental interpretation courses. The 17-credit program focuses on engaging students in the natural world.

“The immersive nature of the SEED semester and Aurora program helped me find a passion for sharing my enthusiasm for the natural world with others. I want to provide settings for people to learn more about the natural world and help instill positive attitudes toward the environment in the future leaders of tomorrow,” Bond said.

Bond’s experience is an example of experiential learning, an important component of higher education. Such primary, project-based learning opportunities complement the education system to help bring classroom theories alive for students. The experiences also help students grow as individuals.

Pete Allison, associate professor for the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management and Shaver’s Creek at Penn State, recently discussed the concept of experiential learning at the annual Czech Philosophy of Sport Conference at Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic.

In the conference keynote, “Philosophy of Experience in the Context of Experiential Education,” Allison drew on a philosophy of Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound, and the importance of educating for the “grande passion,” a powerful, internal motivation to learn and pursue one’s interests.

In his remarks, Allison noted that the concept presents challenges in academic settings, given that traditional school structure and cluttered curricula can sometimes inhibit, rather than enable, students’ passions. However, he said the role of outdoor activities and sport can be key in allowing creativity and imagination to flourish.

“My goal was to raise awareness of the concept of the ‘grande passion,’ and remind researchers and faculty members in attendance about the importance of trying to create opportunities for nurturing the ‘grande passion’ — opportunities for creativity and imaginative education through sport and outdoor activities,” Allison said.

At Penn State, Allison sees many signs engaged scholarship is at work, which can help ignite students’ “grande passion,” such as Bond’s experience at Shaver’s Creek and the multitude of study abroad opportunities.

“College is not a waiting room to get a job. It’s a rich tapestry of opportunities. For some students, it’s that connection to the environment and thinking about their relationship to the environment on a macro and micro scale that provides an opportunity for students to think of themselves as part of a greater world,” Allison said. “It is an opportunity to think about how to live a meaningful life, which is really what Hahn was getting at — what do you need to have a meaningful life, how do you want to spend your time, or what captures your imagination and interest?”

Maria Jose Ramirez outside the U.N.

Maria Jose Ramirez, a Penn State graduate student, won a multilingual essay contest and spent one week in July at Hofstra University and the U.N. headquarters in New York City.

Image: Courtesy of Maria Jose Ramirez

For Maria Jose Ramirez, she discovered her “grande passion” while attending a seminar at the United Nations headquarters on global citizenship education. The workshop focused on Global Citizenship Education and experiential learning, an area that Ramirez studies as a graduate student in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management at Penn State. In fact, her time at the U.N. helped her refocus her research interests.

“This experience helped me make the connection on how my research can help with global citizenship. It shaped my research to do something more meaningful,” Ramirez said. “I am motivated to work toward the U.N.’s long-term agenda for sustainable development and I will investigate how experiential learning can help people become global citizens and how outdoor or embedded experiences can help people be more global minded.”

Such “aha” moments are not limited to college students, Allison said. For example, every year millions of visitors explore national parks and state parks to self-reflect in a natural setting.

“We know from research that when people go to national parks and other ‘big landscapes’ they often use it as an opportunity to step outside of life and look back on it,” Allison said. “They often ask themselves, ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What is the meaning of life?’ They go to these natural landscapes for deeper experiences and to explore their identity.”

For Bond, he believes the best tool to combat many modern societal challenges is through education, which is why he would like to see engaged scholarship utilized wherever possible.

“The traditional forms of education are not always as effective as more informal, experiential education. Through experiential education you can help people become passionate about the topic when they are immersed and using their hands,” Bond said. “It doesn’t matter the subject or the setting, it’s about finding ways to get people involved so they can develop empathy, compassion and work ethic.”

Media Contacts: 
Last Updated December 06, 2016