Trekking across Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories, Aaron Doering's dogsled of supplies crashed through the ice. Most would see a disaster; Doering saw an opportunity to educate millions around the world.
Doering, an Institute on the Environment resident fellow, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development, and director of the Learning Technologies Media Lab, discussed online distance and adventure learning in his Frontiers in the Environment lecture - "North of Sixty: Narratives of a Changing World" earlier this month.
For the past decade, Doering has traveled the world, interviewing people on their life in a changing environment.
"It's the power of the story that engages us," Doering said. "Everyone loves to have a good story, especially if it's in real-time. Look at social media today. And that's exactly what we're trying to provide, is the story in a way that can engage learners."
Throughout his travels, Doering documented his adventures with weekly online updates and videos. Using traditional methods of transportation and talking with local residents along the way, Doering was able to bring his experiences to the classroom.
"Adventure learning is simply where we identify these locations, these places, these people, these issues -- environmental issues around the world -- and we write a curriculum about it, we actually travel to these locations, we design these online learning environments, and our goal is to educate the public and engage learners around the world," Doering said.
The idea caught on quickly. The Arctic Transect and GoNorth! Adventure Learning programs captured the attention of more than 15 million students in 3,000 classrooms across all 50 states and six continents.
Each of Doering's Arctic excursions focused on a new environmental issue, including climate change in Canada, mineral exploration in Russia and deforestation in Scandinavia. But experiential adventure learning may have another sustainability component by helping to bridge the gap between standardized curriculum and practical, real-world knowledge.
"What we quickly came to realize is that there was this disconnect between the way students were being educated and what they actually needed to exist in their cultures of today," Doering said. "So for example, in Canada, they may have been learning from the Canadian curricula, but at the same time they aren't learning the traditional ways of going out and hunting caribou or fishing for Arctic char. So there was this disconnect between education and sustainability, as I saw it."
Doering's other educational initiatives include North of Sixty, which documents the stories of native people living in a changing Arctic climate, and IonE-sponsored Earthducation, which collected narratives from people around the globe. With each program and each trip, Doering is making major strides for adventure learning.
"We try to create change, not simply respond to it," he said. "In education, one thing that we know is that there is usually something that is introduced to us and then we have to try to fit it into the classroom. But what we want to do is identify how we can motivate learners, do it in a way that is innovative, and do it in a way that we can bring that world into the classroom. Many people believe that this can't happen in education, but in the last 10 years we have actually tried to change that."
Watch Doering's full presentation online.
John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.