Independence, empowerment and the environment: school trips are more than jollies

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Under the shadow of a colossal Buddhist monastery, nestled deep in a mountain valley in India’s remote Ladakh region, a row of greenhouses grows fresh fruit and vegetables. They are a lifeline for the villagers during the harsh winter months when heavy snow cuts off the area from the outside world, but they were not put there by a charity or non-governmental organisation (NGO). They were built by a group of 30 teenagers from Devon.

The 16- to 18-year-olds from Exeter school travelled to the country with maths teacher Will Daws in 2013. During the 29-day expedition, organised by the School Travel Consultancy, the students lived with families in the village and worked with local builders to clear the site and construct the greenhouses. Malnutrition is a common problem among children and pregnant women in the village, so the ability to grow fresh produce all year round has made a huge difference.

It’s not the first expedition Daws has taken his students on – previous destinations have included Vietnam, Peru and Namibia. He explains that each trip has been a unique opportunity to educate students about the impact of humans on our fragile environment, while teaching a host of curriculum subjects. The trip to India, for example, sparked discussions about the developmental and economic challenges facing the villagers, as well as how the area’s isolated location affects their lives.

Daws explains that these trips are far from jollies abroad for students: “They really pick up on the challenges that people are facing and the poverty, what little people have and how hard it is to make a living in some of these other countries.”

“It’s quite easy in a classroom to see a picture and write an essay about it, but until you see it face to face it is very hard to understand what that actually means for someone’s life and how it affects them,” he adds.

Jen Lynn, head of outdoor learning at Nottingham girls’ high school, says taking students out of their comfort zone and into a culture that is radically different to their own can be extremely empowering. Since joining the school six years ago, Lynn has expanded opportunities for outdoor learning, setting up an “exploration society” which includes archery lessons, horse riding, canoeing and international expeditions.

She recently took students to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, as well as trekking in Iceland and kayaking through the Norwegian fjords. All trips open the teenagers’ eyes to different ways of life and help them develop an appreciation of the natural world. They witnessed the power of the Earth by seeing how Iceland’s volcanoes shaped the landscape, and our planet’s fragile beauty in the Norwegian ice-caps. The girls learned how to care for the environment during a biking expedition in south Norway by camping in the wild and employing the “take only memories, leave only footprints” philosophy. One of the students was so inspired she decided to study environmental engineering at university.

Students also learned another important lesson – independence. Every trip is entirely student-led, from how to get to and from the airport to the activities they want to do. Lynn explains that by allowing the students to take control, they learn resilience, leadership and teamwork skills.

“I am there as a safety officer who will step in if needed, but it is teaching them the life skills they need to be confident women, wherever they are, and to realise that they can do more than they can possibly ever imagine,” she says.

For Ringwood school students Millie Wells and Sam Whittingham, a trip to the slums of Delhi led them to direct action to improve the lives of the people they met there. They travelled to India in 2013 with former biology teacher and sustainability coordinator Gill Hickman after winning the Steve Sinnott award to become young ambassadors for the Send My Friend to School campaign, which aims to improve access to education in developing countries.

During the fact-finding mission, funded by the Global Campaign for Education UK and the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the pair – who were in year 10 at the time – visited primary schools and met campaign groups working in Delhi to improve the health and education of children living and learning there. Hickman explains that a lack of clean water and sanitation prevents many children from attending school, especially girls starting puberty. Some students, she says, didn’t even have access to a toilet.

“There were open sewers and great piles of treacle-like sludge with animals rooting through heaps of rotting rubbish. That was one of my lasting memories,” she says.

It inspired the students to campaign for change and, when they returned to the UK armed with compelling first-hand accounts, they began campaigning to encourage other young people to push for universal primary education.

As well as sharing their experiences at the NUT conference, assemblies and in local schools, they blogged and wrote to MPs and the prime minister. They were even invited to attend Malala Day at the UN in New York where they met and shared ideas with other young campaigners from around the world.

While Wells and Whittingham were lucky enough to have their trip funded for them, a commercial expedition can come with a hefty price tag. But both Lynn and Daws insist it is possible to afford these trips without relying on the bank of mum and dad. Daws says many of his students worked a Saturday job, while Lynn suggests running fundraising activities. Some of her students raised £4,000 in one evening by holding a music concert, while others offered to take away cut grass from people’s lawns in areas of Nottingham where the council don’t do collections.

In a digital age, the opportunity to gain direct experience of global issues is something which adventure education expert Bryan Richardson believes is invaluable if we are to tackle the huge environmental, social and economic challenges which face the next generation.

Richardson, who is the general manager of Schools Worldwide, a company that runs educational expeditions, adds: “Giving kids a perspective on the world will help shape them as people going forward and might even influence the education and career decisions that they choose in the future.”

Source: The Guardian

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