Bringing Education Outside the Classroom

Few classes are able to teach critical thinking, sustainability, teamwork and environmental skills in a non-traditional way. The IEE Program at Sisters High School, however, accomplishes this goal and more; interweaving science, language arts and physical health into one cohesive class. 

“(IEE) is composed of a community of learners working together to gain a balanced, in-depth understanding of the world around them,” said IEE teacher Samra Spear.

Taking place during fall and spring trimesters, this class is available for juniors to take, additionally offering returning seniors the ability to act as interns. With numerous day and night trips throughout the semesters, this class is treasured by many adventurous students. 

“I’ve grown up being outdoors so I’ve always loved nature. I took IEE and loved the teachers and the connections I was able to make with people,” said Sisters High School senior Ila Reid, an IEE intern. “The best thing is when it brings together a group of unlikely kids. When I was an intern I had a group that didn’t usually hang out, they all were friendly with each other but weren’t friends. But by the end, all of us bonded in a way that created so many new relationships.”

The class itself was founded in 2000 by Samra Spear, Rand Runco, Glen Herron and Rob Phelps. Their goal was to create a space for students to explore their environment while also being able to engage in learning in a new way. 

“If we’re going out rock climbing, you’ve got to think about the geography and makeup of the rocks, and then you can incorporate poems and literature about the landscape, it’s all connected,” stated Runco. 

The class has two major expeditions throughout the year; one to the Three Sisters Mountains and one to the Deschutes River. These excursions are ones that the students look forward to the most during the class, as they get to spend three days exploring Central Oregon and its varying trails and environments.

More than anything, however, this class aids students in developing a sense of place. Existing in this modern world as a teenager can often translate to hours spent on screens everyday, which disconnects and dampens the spirits of students. This course helps battle that by getting kids outside to engage in academics in an unorthodox way. 

“There was this kid — he had a tendency to act out in class, but when we were all hiking the mountain he was like a completely different person,” stated Reid. 

Being in a classroom environment for as much as seven hours a day, five days a week can feel repetitive for some students. Being exposed to nature-specific outdoor learning can change this. Hundreds of studies have been done, and the benefits of engagement, intrapersonal and social skills have been shown to improve drastically.

As a result, the program has drawn in as much as 60% of the junior class to become involved every year. Many of them were also previous students of a Sisters Middle School Program called ECoS. ( Earth, Community, Self). This elective is similar to IEE, with more of a focus on geology, rock climbing, cave-exploration and the wonders that nature can hold.

“When I was considering moving with my kids to Sisters, I was attracted to the way this community supports students in the arts and in outdoor education,” said ECoS teacher Michael Geisen. “There were a lot of opportunities for high school students, but less for the younger students. Rob Jensen and I wanted to help bridge that gap between Outdoor School in fifth or sixth grade and IEE in 11th grade, so we started working on a new experience that students could join in 8th grade as a culmination of their middle school years.”.

Many middle-schoolers walk away with a love for ECoS, and much to their joy, find themselves being led to IEE. 

“Every year these students amaze me with their courage and attitudes. I think one of the most rewarding parts of teaching eighth graders is seeing them head on to high school, post-secondary learning and then into the world to make a difference in their new communities,” states Geisen.

The culmination of these two classes for many students leads to a better grasp on the world around them, applying their education to their new adventures and communities. Over the years these programs have changed and shifted their ways of teaching and where they go on trips, but the love for the classes by students has never waned.