Memories from Residential Outdoor Education Have Long-term Impact

Liddicoat, K. R., & Krasny, M. E. (2014). Memories as useful outcomes of residential outdoor environmental education. The Journal Of Environmental Education, 45, 178-193.

For students, spending several days at a residential outdoor environmental education (ROEE) program creates many new and powerful experiences, some of which are remembered for years to come. Yet, to date, only limited research has considered the role of memories as an outcome of environmental education. This study investigated the memories of students five years after they completed an ROEE program. The gathered memories served as a means of qualitatively measuring the long-term impact of these programs on the students' environmental knowledge, behaviors, social interactions, and personal narratives.

There are many different types of memory. For the purposes of this study, the authors focused on long-term episodic memories, which are memories of a specific event or episode, rather than generalized knowledge (semantic memories). Specifically, the authors focused on autobiographical memories, which are considered a subset of episodic memories that create a part of a person's coherent life story. These memories were considered best suited for investigating the long-term impact of the ROEE programs.

In addition to learning what the participants remembered about the programs, the authors wanted to know how the participants have used these memories. Previous research into memory, reported in the psychology literature, has divided the uses of episodic autobiographic memories into three main categories: directive function, social function, and self function. Directive function refers to when a memory of a past experience is used to direct action and make predictions about the future. Social function is when a memory is used to converse and share stories, thus forging new relationships and maintaining intimacy with friends and family. Self function is when a memory enables a person to develop a coherent sense of self over time. The authors asked: How do memories of ROEE serve directive, social, or self functions? The authors paid special attention to directive functions, since directing future actions and behavior is most closely aligned with the goals of environmental education.

Data for this study were collected at two different research sites: the North Cascades Institute's Mountain School in North Cascades National Park, Washington; and the Teton Science Schools near Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. The program at the North Cascades Institute (NCI) was a three-day camping experience for fifth graders designed to foster an appreciation for the local biota and natural and cultural history of North Cascades National Park, as well as stewardship of the environment. The Teton Science Schools program consisted of two different three-day programs. One was for fifth graders, designed to teach the students about different ecosystems in Grand Teton National Park through inquiry-based scientific investigation and encourage environmentally friendly behaviors, such as limiting food waste. The other program was for seventh graders, and focused on winter ecology through a series of field experiences and outdoor recreation activities such as snowshoeing and cross country skiing.

Study participants were high school students (now in tenth or twelfth grade) who had attended one of these programs five years prior to the study. The first author visited classrooms at both schools and interviewed willing students. The sample included 18 former participants from NCI and 36 from the Teton Science Schools. The interviews were semistructured, with a basic outline of questions that became more specific as each interview progressed. The recorded interviews were transcribed verbatim, and the data were analyzed using qualitative data analysis software for emergent themes and categories. Data from each site were analyzed separately so that the findings could be compared and contrasted to one another.

The authors found that the interviewed students recalled many powerful memories from their ROEE experience and that these memories were continuing to serve a variety of functions in their lives. Many of the specific themes that emerged were similar at both sites, with different emphases that reflected the intentions of each program, as well as the different backgrounds of the students.

The most prominent uses of the memories were directive, such as inspiring an interest in outdoor recreation and environmental stewardship. For most students who participated in the program at NCI, the experience was their first time camping in a tent, especially without their families. Many of these students expressed appreciation for the experience and the desire to do it again. That said, most of them had not been able to actually go camping again, which the authors suggest may be due to their lack of independence as minors. The students from NCI also shared many environmental stewardship behaviors they had implemented into their current lives. They attributed these behaviors to what they learned during the program. These were mostly personal behaviors readily applied at home, such as turning off the water when not in use and not wasting food.

Participants of the Teton Science Schools program reported the knowledge gained in the course had been directly applied to their daily lives, recreational pursuits, and work. Many of the students in the program were regularly partaking in outdoor recreation activities both before and after participating in the course, and so were able to put to use specific knowledge about the outdoors, such as how to look at snow layers and predict the avalanche danger. The students also credited their experience from the course with inspiring greater enthusiasm for environmental stewardship, especially with regard to learning about and caring for the local landscape.

The participants shared that the ROEE program had also significantly helped them with their social skills (considered a directive function) and had served for years as the basis of social interaction (a social function). Social skills included learning to work with others, make new friends, and be more outgoing within group settings. The memories served as a basis for social interaction by being a source of shared experience that facilitated reminiscing with friends who also attended the program. The memories were also shared with family and friends who did not attend the program, which promoted participation in the program by younger students and siblings. Some of the shared memories seemed to serve a self-function, which are the memories that give a sense of continuity to one's life. Many students reported the trip was one of the most memorable experiences of elementary school and, overall, a fun and positive one. The authors propose that these types of memories may relate to self-confidence and a sense of empowerment needed to pursue environmental goals.

The Bottom Line

<p>This study is one of the first to explore the use of memories as a measurable outcome of environmental education experiences, considering whether these memories can be used to evaluate the long-term effectiveness of a program. Using the three memory-use categories defined in the psychology literature—self, social, and directive—the authors investigated the different ways in which memories of a residential environmental education program had impacted students' lives, as reported five years after the experience. Results showed that the memories served a variety of functions that were aligned with environmental education's goals, such as promoting environmental stewardship and an interest in outdoor recreation.</p>