The Outdoor Classroom

Learn why Morton Asfeldt braves the cold to bring his students place-based, experiential learning in the North.

By Olivia DeBourcier

You have courses that take students into northern Alberta, as well as the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. What’s an example of what you would do with your students on an excursion?

I have some friends who live out on the east arm of Great Slave Lake on a wilderness homestead. Since 2005, we’ve been going out there in February for a couple of weeks. The folks that live there, they take half the students out on dog sleds up to the treeline and just beyond for seven days. I stay at the homestead with the students and do a whole variety of activities at the homestead and focus a lot on writing — and then halfway through we swap.

The focus on writing for parts of the trip, is that an academic part of the experience or is that something that’s just for the students’ personal use?

I think for an experience to be really educative, we need to have an experience and then we need to have a reflective experience that helps them make connections between the [course] content and their experience. So I do ask students to keep a journal on our trips. I never read their journals; sometimes I give a participation grade.

What do students get out of an outdoor education class that they don’t get on campus?

Most students find the style of teaching and learning refreshing. We’re doing stuff together as a big group, whether that’s going to do a canoe trip for five days, or a backpacking trip for eight days, or an Arctic canoe expedition for 21 days or a dog sled expedition for two weeks.

The snowshoe course you teach in winter term is a bit closer to home. What does that course look like?

The first part of it is basically– here’s how you stay warm, let’s go snowshoeing, let’s set these wall tents up and teach you how to build a fire. Then we go on a seven-day snowshoe expedition up by Lakeland Provincial Park. And it’s beautiful. You can walk on lakes, it’s in the boreal forest. And really the goal is getting students out and spending time in winter and getting away from technology, immersing them in that place and in that style of living. I have been impressed by students who have never been out and maybe never slept in a tent before. And a couple of times on that January journey we’ve had −40°C weather!

Do you think your students have developed more environmental consciousness as a result of these trips?

I’m guessing that there’s a range of impacts, certainly. Some of the research we have done on our own program suggests that students claim that they are more environmentally aware. Whether that translates into pro-environmental behaviour or not, I don’t have evidence that I can say yes or no to that.

Apart from surviving −40°C, what’s one of the more challenging parts of your work?

One thing that I think more and more about and find both exciting and challenging is decolonizing the colonial settler relationship.

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.