Research Summary

Diversity in the outdoors --National Outdoor Leadership School students' attitudes about wilderness

Wilderness attitudes of students with and without scholarship support are enhanced through National Outdoor Leadership School courses

Journal of Experiential Education

The aim of this study was to understand the environmental attitudes and values held by students on National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) courses and to determine if they changed from before the NOLS experience to after the experience. One of the goals of NOLS is to provide programming that reflects the needs and perspectives of diverse communities. The Gateway Scholarship program – which provides full-tuition scholarships to low-income students -- was developed as a step toward addressing this goal. While some low-income white students have received scholarships, most of the scholarship students have been persons of color. A second aim of this study was to determine whether scholarship and non-scholarship NOLS students held different wilderness attitudes.

After participating in a summer NOLS experience, 74 students completed an on-line survey with items formatted as both posttest questions (“after my trip . . .”) and retrospective pretest questions (“before my trip . . .”). Four wilderness-related attitude areas were included: sense of place, environmental awareness, value of wilderness, and environmental ethics. Thirty-three respondents were Gateway Scholarship students; forty-one were non-scholarship students. Additional survey questions asked students directly about their experiences during the NOLS program and previous wilderness experiences. Information was also collected about the participants’ urban/rural residency and their racial/ethnic identity. A final survey item asked respondents if they were willing to participate in a follow-up interview.

A total of 19 older adolescent and young adult students (9 scholarship, 10 non-scholarship) were interviewed about their previous background with wilderness, how and why their view of wilderness did (or did not) change because of the NOLS experience, and how the NOLS course affected their lives after returning home.

Findings indicated that among the 64 students who reported race and/or ethnicity, all but one scholarship student self-identified as nonwhite, while 80% of the non-scholarship students identified themselves as white. Sixty-five percent of the scholarship students and 27% of the non-scholarship students were from major metropolitan areas. There were no significant differences between the two groups in the amount of previous wilderness experience.

Both groups (scholarship and non-scholarship students) experienced statistically significant positive change in all wilderness attitudes after participating in the NOLS course. The scores of scholarship students, however, changed more than the other group. While the scholarship students held less positive pre-course wilderness attitudes than non-scholarship students, the post-course scores were similar. Interview responses were consistent with the survey results.

These findings, in addition to providing some insights into the impact of the NOLS diversity initiative, also suggests some potential places for improvement. One concern relates to the dramatic difference in the racial and ethnic identities of scholarship and non-scholarship students. This finding reinforces the need for scholarship programs to attract people of color to NOLS courses and other outdoor environmental education (OEE) programs. A caution presented by the authors, however, concerns the need for a diversification of the wilderness narrative promoted in NOLS and other OEE courses. They suggest that, in the process of designing diversity initiatives, organizations would do well to address the following question: “Is the goal of a diversity initiative to add more individuals of diverse backgrounds into the same equation, or to diversify that equation with the inclusion of different perspectives?”

Gress, S., & Hall, T.. (2017). Diversity in the outdoors --National Outdoor Leadership School students' attitudes about wilderness. Journal of Experiential Education. doi: