“Here is the library. But the study is outside. Of “While walking», an essay by Henry David Thoreau
COVID-19 has forced us to rethink almost every aspect of our daily lives, including college education. Boston University Launch Learn of Everywhere (LFA), but one place that was overlooked in “Anywhere” is the urban outdoors. There are safe, healthy and stimulating outdoor learning and teaching opportunities everywhere in and around BU. We should take advantage of it.
BU and Boston were early innovators in experiential outdoor education, so we have many examples and a historical legacy to work from. In fact, our own BU faculty member, Paul Hutchinson (GRS’15), a senior lecturer at Questrom, wrote a the whole thesis on outdoor experiential education, including its deep roots in Boston and BU.
The Charlesbank Playground, on the Esplanade, was the first intentional public playground in the United States, and education was an integral part of its vision. The namesake of Sargent College and BU’s Sargent Center for Outdoor Education, Dudley Allen Sargent, designed this playground with Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect responsible for New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace . Boston Farm School, Brook Farm, Temple School and BU’s Sargent Center for Outdoor Education, [sold in 2009 and now run by Nature’s Classroom]were all part of the historic innovation of outdoor education in greater Boston and New England.
We’re building on that legacy this fall at Earth House, BU’s living learning community dedicated to sustainable lifestyles and systems. Living learning communities at BU are those in which the curriculum is explicitly linked to the residential experience. In its first five years as a living learning community, Earth House used the South Campus four-story townhouse on Buswell Street as a focus of inquiry into environmental, economic and social sustainability. This fall, out of a need to de-densify interior spaces, we are transforming Earth House “upside down,” stepping out of this living residential classroom to examine the natural and human systems that support it and into which it is embedded.
What does outdoor experiential college education look like in the 21st century? At Earth House, instructors and students discover together this fall, learning appropriately through experience. Consistent with Learn of Everywhere, students can join our team of instructors outdoors, masked and from a safe distance, for walking tours of exploration and investigation, studying everything from street trees and the ecohydrology of the Muddy River to tracing municipal water lines, sumps, gas and electrical lines. wires that serve Earth House and all of Boston.
Being outdoors doesn’t mean giving up technology; rather, it is about using the tools appropriately. So, in addition to mobile devices and headphones that can sometimes help us communicate despite the din of city life, we will use decidedly low-tech but useful tools such as sweaters and rain gear, comfortable walking shoes , camping stools and maybe even Blue Bikes. Outdoor education must be inclusive: we will only visit places that are accessible to everyone. To facilitate the inevitable teacher hand gesture, I purchased a neck-mounted selfie stick so I could stream hands-free outdoor walking tours to students who choose to learn inside Earth. House or worldwide.
Ironically, by necessity, the pandemic has motivated me more than ever as a teacher “in” Earth House to look at it from the outside and appreciate its place in Boston. Reading the history and philosophy of outdoor experiential education, it is evident that 19th and 20th century conceptions of the “outdoors” might need updating for the 21st century. Wilderness was once seen as outdoor, even in the city, so educators strove to create and separate nature from the built environment. And that has produced great urban wild and green spaces, like the Charlesbank Playground, Franklin Parkand the Fens of the back bay. Today, we see neighborhoods as dynamic and diverse human ecosystems, worthy of interest and engagement and inextricably linked to nature; whether strolling along residential or commercial streets, we will again appreciate that every street tree is wild in the city; that clouds and skies are direct links to ever-changing nature and our global commons; that the redeveloped streets, the BU beach and even the car parks are also nature’s classroom spaces, providing us with safe and exceptional learning opportunities.
Nathan Phillips is Professor of Earth and Environment at the College of Arts & Sciences; he can be reached at [email protected].
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