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The Nature Gap and High School Redesign

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By Seamus Foy, Jerry Howland, Eric Arnold, Camella Scott, Sujata Bhatt

The Nature Gap

Today's youth are less connected to nature than any other generation in human history. Urban and low-income students experience nature less than their suburban or more affluent peers. This 'nature gap' is, in fact, an opportunity gap--something that generates greater inequities in social, cultural, and physical capital. Intrepid Academy at Hale (IAH), a semester-long 11th grade expeditionary learning program created jointly by Hale and the Boston Public Schools (BPS), is being developed to the address this nature gap, and explore whether closing it can reduce achievement gaps. Launched in January of 2108, IAH just completed its first semester.

Our Hope: Intrepid Academy at Hale's Learning Model 

IAH's approach is to pair physical activity in nature with rigorous academics to foster agency in school and life, thereby creating a virtuous cycle that grows student engagement and achievement. Central to physical well-being, exercise helps Intrepid students thrive cognitively and emotionally. It primes the brain for learning and helps cultivate grit and resilience that will serve them in all domains of college, career, and life. IAH's curricular cycles begin with content intended to pique curiosity and create awe before liberating students to exercise voice and choice through a series of projects of increasing complexity and cognitive demand that prepare them to choose a topic for their Intrepid Talk, a TED Talk-like capstone presentation.

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IAH understands that 21st century success requires students to be adept learners who take purposeful action to adapt to our rapidly changing world. Intrepid students take initiative by setting and reflecting on learning and fitness goals as they develop social and self-awareness that will serve them in future academic and career experiences. After this intensive semester-long experience, students return to their home school feeling recharged and purposeful. 

Our Experience: Students' Voices

We found that closing the nature gap did indeed help our students to thrive. Our students' voices, expressed in end-of-semester surveys, speak to the changes they experienced. Marley, wrote, "at first I thought it would be bad being outdoors in cold surrounded by insects and animals, but that changed. This program was a good experience and helped us physically and mentally." For Jessica, it was as simple as, "the environment: being able to take a small walk before class to wake me up." More adventurous students, such as Dourell, enjoyed "hikes, runs, and bike rides right before starting work." Dourell found that taking time to get out and move can increase productivity, observing that "tying exercise into academics can increase your ability to learn and focus and, I can get a lot done with exercise or maybe a short walk." Alexa noted that her time at Hale brought out the best in her because of "the balance between being in a classroom like regular school but also getting a chance to go out and enjoy nature which helps refocus after being distracted." 

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For many of our students, neighborhood crime and systemic racism inundate them with chronic stress, which threatens to undermine both health and academic success. Student feedback suggests that learning in the outdoors is part of the antidote to this societal problem, helping to grow emotional and cognitive well-being. George shared that his "favorite part of Hale is being in nature so I can clear my mind and get ready to focus and do my work. I also like the community at Hale, which brought students closer together."

Preliminary Results

The Intrepid experience did grow student agency. It helped our students realize that persisting beyond first impressions and taking risks can bring about new opportunities. It extended what George Couros calls their 'innovator's mindset.' In pre- and post-surveys administered to students, students registered growth in all eight characteristics, and particularly in risk-taking:

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"This program helps grades increase and brain activity," Marley wrote. "Kids can learn and have fun and be open minded. People make new friends, try new things, and step out of their comfort zone."

Some other preliminary data are also promising:

  • 147-point median score increase from PSATs to SATs for 28 out of 33 students
  • 17.2 percent increase in risk-taking
  • 10.2 percent increase in seeing themselves as creators
  • 7.7 percent increase in the belief that they will be successful in school
  • 9.8 percent increase in their ability to choose a course to meet their goals
  • 5 percent higher daily attendance than their home school

While it is too soon to tell how long the effects will last, some of our students are already spreading what they have learned. Six of our students were hired to work at Hale's summer learning program for BPS elementary students, but this is only the beginning. Access to a healthy, active lifestyle is an equity issue that we have a responsibility to solve, and Miguel's words suggest that we are empowering our youth to solve that problem: "I've learned that physical health and activity should be practiced and understood by everyone, no matter their race or background. It's something I'll always advocate for and teach my children."


Check out this video to learn more about the student experience in the Intrepid Academy at Hale.

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