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Summer credit courses connect outdoor learning to academics

Liam says students will love coming to school at the Canadian Ecology Centre as the lessons come to life when the learning takes place outdoors and education is delivered in ways that can’t be in a typical classroom

For six weeks every summer, students from across Ontario visit the Canadian Ecology Centre in Mattawa and earn secondary school credits granted by the Near North District School Board (NNDSB).

The partnership between the board and the Canadian Ecology Centre (CEC) has been in place for approximately 30 years and has seen thousands of students learn in the “School of Experiential Education” over the summer months.

Students stay at the CEC for a two-week session, earning a secondary school credit through experiential learning. Courses from Grade 9-12 in geography, science, biology, physics and kinesiology are offered each summer.

Laura Kielpinski is the Director of Operations and Education at the CEC and notes the summer credit courses connect outdoor learning to academics, enriching the learning experience for students, whose classroom is primarily the outdoors, located within Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park. For example, the Grade 11 biology students found a cold-water stream and monitored how heart rates changed in cold water.

Kielpinski says the Centre “inspires intrigue and inquiry in learning.”

The students live on-site, experiencing a camp-like environment with cabins, campfires and canoes. “Students live here, learn here, eat here, play here,” she
says. The teachers that are hired for each two-week course are outstanding educators who can bring creativity to their students; they aren’t confined by
buildings and time.

In a non-COVID year, the centre would be running four high school courses concurrently, with 80-90 students attending for a two-week session. Because of the pandemic, the CEC is running at 50 per cent capacity, and some of the courses are blended online and in-person.

The CEC is usually full by the end of the calendar year for the next summer’s program, says Kielpinski. Some students come because they are “reach-aheaders” — they want to get a credit under their belt early, enabling more flexibility for options the next school year. Others just learn better outdoors and away from books. Many students are surprised to learn there are no textbooks for courses at the Canadian Ecology Centre.

NNDSB’s secondary summer school principal Jamey Byers says, “We are grateful that we have such a long-standing relationship with the Canadian Ecology Centre; it benefits students in so many ways and is a great facility. The educators and staff there have passion for what they teach, and the students are the beneficiaries of that passion.”

The first week of the 2021 summer program included two classes — Grade 9 geography and Grade 11 biology.

Maya Yemm and Taryn Wozney are Grade 9 students, attending the CEC for the first time. Maya attends Ashbury College in Ottawa, and Taryn is a student at West Ferris in North Bay.

Maya liked being outside in nature and found there was a lot of cooperation among students in the course, it was not independent study. She said that helped her understand her peers better. She also thought that seeing things — such as an aquifer — made the lessons more real.

Taryn liked that the course was hands-on, and not just delivered from textbooks. She would recommend the summer course for anyone who likes being outside and not confined to a classroom. She took the summer course to give her more flexibility to take courses she was interested in when school resumes in September.

Students Sebastian Altamirano and Liam Ferrell are both heading to Grade 11 in September. They met this summer in the biology class at the Canadian Ecology Centre.

Sebastian says he has difficulty concentrating and going to school online “didn’t work. I was distracted.” This is his first year taking the summer course and he loves going to school in the outdoor setting, where the class moves around a lot. Although there was an adjustment period, he likes the fast pace of the day and the learning.

This is Liam’s third summer at the Canadian Ecology Centre. He loves that his classes are enriched with nature, are creative and that his two weeks are a unique blend of school and camp. Located several hours north of his London, Ont., home, Sebastian likes the environment that he has not seen before. The rocks and forests are different than what he’s used to, and he saw red squirrels and a black bear during his session at the Centre.

Liam likes taking his mandatory course in the summer which allows him to take the electives he wants at his secondary school in Milton.

Sebastian says the teachers at the Centre have helped him to learn about himself. Students complete journals in which they reflect on course material and their day and their experiences. He says he has learned much about himself and how he manages; his newfound self-awareness will serve him well as he can
communicate to his teachers about how he learns best.

Liam says students will love coming to school at the Centre. He describes how lessons come to life when the learning takes place outdoors, and that the education is delivered in ways that can’t be in a typical classroom.

Students interested in pursuing summer credit courses should contact their secondary school guidance counsellors and/or visit the Canadian Ecology Centre’s
website for more details and upcoming courses.