Story last updated at 12/3/2008 - 2:01 pm
JUNEAU - Chris Behnke has more than 100 credits in the University of Alaska system without ever declaring a major.
A life-long Alaskan, he has always worked in the outdoors - including six summers in the Forest Service - but never found the course of study that truly reflected his goals and interests. He thinks there may a lot of young people in Alaska who feel the same way.
"I never found a program I really wanted," Behnke, 26, said
Now Behnke, along with a growing group of students and faculty members, is hopeful that the Outdoor Studies (ODS) certificate program can grow into a four-year degree program at the University of Alaska Southeast.
Interested in pursuing a career in the outdoor industry, Behnke said courses in understanding avalanches, or swift water rescue are "tremendously valuable" to him. He believes the ODS certificate will help him find work guiding in the wilderness. Yet as someone who has spent much of his life thinking about the outdoors, he also relishes the liberal arts aspect of the program - the opportunity to discuss the philosophy and the literature behind the outdoors.
"I love philosophy classes and the whole idea of our relationship with nature and our group relationships," Behnke said. "That's a pretty different awareness from just skill-based (programs)."
What makes the ODS certificate unique also makes it a good candidate for a four-year degree program. In addition to outdoor experiential courses and leadership skill development, the program including a liberal arts component of reading and discussing literature and philosophy pertaining to the outdoors.
And for ODS program participants, the lines between field classes and academic classes often blur.
"When we're up at Eaglecrest in blasting wind and snow... and trying to evaluate the snow pack, you really learn something about your group," Behnke said. "(These experiences) are insights into human nature.
"If this was a four year program, I would have jumped on this years ago."
And he's not the only one. ODS program director Forest Wagner said he knows of several students who told him they would have preferred an ODS degree to what they did graduate with. He is hopeful that beginning in the fall of 2009 they will have that opportunity.
"I think it's way overdue," Wagner said.
In the process of growing a one-year certificate program into a four-year degree program, Wagner and others are raising questions about the role of the entire university in Southeast Alaska.
In a push for more experiential learning across the curriculum, more and more students may find field components to classes - whether the field is an icefield, a mountain top or a boat on the water.
"If we don't actually go outside, there's nothing unique about going to school here except it's a small campus," Wagner said. "There's a lot of reasons Southeast is attractive for folks. I certainly think this program would encourage people to check us out."
A graduate of UAS and the ODS program himself, Wagner was drawn to UAS by the opportunity to live and study in the Tongass National Forest, a big change from the Fairbanks area he grew up in. While in the program, he was constantly questioning what the program was trying to accomplish and offering constructive criticism to the program's academic director, Keven Krein. In 2006, Wagner was hired as the program's first full-time director.
And so far, the idea of a four-year degree has been well-received at UAS. The program passed the faculty senate and now must be reviewed by the curriculum committee. Wagner hopes the major could be available as early as fall of 2009. The 120-credit curriculum would involve the same general education requirements as any other four-year degree. But in the third and fourth years, students would be spending most of their time in the field, trying to apply what they have learned in the classroom - "questions of self, society and understandings of the natural world," as Wagner puts it.
"We'd be actively developing classes across the liberal arts discipline," he said. "We just want more experiential learning with those themes of outdoor education, getting people outside."
For example, Wagner said an archeology professor is interested in developing an Arctic Anthropology class in which students would travel into northern Canada for an applied archeology lesson.
"I really think this could set UAS apart as the place to come and study the liberal arts, the place to study for a comprehensive education," Wagner said.
Right now, the ODS program demands academic skills that many college freshmen have not yet developed. By making it a four-year degree program, incoming freshmen would be able to get the basic academic skills necessary to succeed in the program, while the certificate program would remain a "really concise one-year attempt at posing these questions and trying to answer them," Wagner said.
Professor of Philosophy Kevin Krein has been involved with the ODS program from the beginning as the academic director. One of his classes, Perspectives on the Natural World, is currently the only required philosophy class for an ODS certificate.
Krein and Wagner discussed the program and its future at a recent "Evening at Egan" lecture.
"My question as a philosopher is why we're so interested in this type of activity," Krein said during the lecture. "(Because it is) such an important part of our culture, it's worth reflecting on critically."
Since the talk, other faculty members have contacted Wagner about ways to develop classes in the ODS discipline.
"It's been pretty neat to live through the development of this and feel like this year and last year we're really getting it," he said.
Under the Influence
The Outdoor Studies program will show the snowboard and ski film "Under the Influence" Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Student Recreation across Back Loop Road from the main campus. The event is a fundraiser for the program's capstone trip, a student-designed and led expedition at the end of the school year. Admission is $10 general, $5 for students and free to kids under six. For more information call 1-877-465-4827.
For more information about the Outdoor Studies program visit www.uas.alaska.edu/ods.