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'Environmental Studies 101' On a Traveling School Bus

In a unique outdoor education program, students take a collaborative approach to ecological issues in the US

When Diane Becker began her alternative outdoor-education program in 1969, she was an environmental activist and a rebel. Traveling cross-country in an old school bus and living outdoors, she set out with students to preach environmentalism and fight the system.

Now, 26 years later, Ms. Becker remains the dynamic force behind her pioneering concept, which in 1978 became the Audubon Expedition Institute (AEI), a highly regarded, accredited undergraduate and graduate-level education program of the National Audubon Society.

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AEI students and faculty still travel by bus throughout the United States and Canada, living and learning in the field, and many students consider themselves environmental activists. But they are no longer rebels fighting the system. Instead, says Becker, her goal is to foster leaders who are inquisitive, skilled in techniques such as collaboration and consensus-building, and motivated to effect change - both social and environmental - through the political process.

''In the early '70s, when we met with the resource people in the field, we would sit and argue with them. We felt we had all the answers,'' remembers Becker, who after 18 years of bus life and teaching now directs the AEI program out of its administrative offices in Belfast, Maine. ''Each year when we visited sugar-industry people in Florida, for example, we got into the same argument; we weren't changing their minds, and vice versa.''

Gradually Becker realized that though students were learning from their experiences, most issues were too complex to discuss in terms of right and wrong. The program needed to get away from an ''us versus them'' mentality. ''It wasn't a sudden awakening or anything,'' she says, ''but by the '80s we began to go into meetings with people, even those we might view as adversaries, with a different approach.'' Instead of preaching, they began listening and asking questions, an attitude that Becker is convinced has kept the institute at the cutting edge in the world of education.

What hasn't changed since 1969 is Becker's conviction that experiential education, via the mobile classroom, is a very effective mode of learning.

It is a conviction shared by a growing number of educators says Charlene Cochrane, director for the Lesley Audubon program at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., the institution that credits AEI.

''The AEI model of experiential ... education is a unique and visionary way for students to learn. What makes it so effective is that it also very academic,'' she says.

Karen Warren, an outdoor instructor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and board member of the Association of Experiential Education, teaches courses in experiential education but says that given the time constraints of the traditional classroom setting, it is impossible for her to duplicate the full learning experience that AEI provides. ''AEI is one of the premium experiential learning programs in the country. They are able to totally involve students in the community in a way other college programs haven't been able to do.''

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Each school term, four AEI buses, each with about 20 students and four faculty, travel in different regions of the US and Canada. This fall, buses are in the Gulf of Maine region (Newfoundland to Cape Cod), Texas, and the Northwest (from British Columbia to California).

In each region, students stop and camp where they explore a particular ecosystem, experience a different culture, such as native American, or research a developing environmental or political issue. Each bus is equipped with a library of research materials; students also take advantage of university and state libraries. ''They might be backpacking for 10 days and studying water issues in California, or visiting an urban area and meeting such dynamic environmental leaders as everglades advocate Marjorie Stoneman Douglas,'' Becker says.

While a few students come to AEI for an interim year between high school and college, most undergraduates come to AEI for one, two, or four semesters, with two on the bus, one based at a camp in Maine, and the final one working either on a master's thesis or as an intern for a relevant organization. And at just $14,325 per year, which includes tuition, room and board, and expedition costs, it is a real deal among private colleges.

Graduate student Catherine Rice was a Boston stockbroker before embarking on her bus travels. She says she came to AEI to learn to ''deal with the social side of issues and work with people on a more personal level, not just with their money problems.''

Sally Soule, a former self-proclaimed ''ski bum,'' says she thinks her AEI education will open up a variety of career choices but says she may work in the field of social action. Brooke Levey majored in sociology and anthropology at a traditional college before entering the program and is currently teaching on an AEI bus in the Southwest.

Last year, program faculty director Seth Benz led a group looking at sustainable development in the Gulf of Maine region. They did extensive library research, explored the region by boat and on foot along coastal trails, and interviewed members of the Gulf of Maine Council, a political entity made up of representatives from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

They then met with members of the Nova Scotia Parliament and listened to a discussion on issues concerning the gulf. Students wrote their own position papers based on what they had learned and sent copies to the Nova Scotia Parliament and Gulf of Maine Council members.

At AEI, experiential learning is always a collective effort, says Mr. Benz. ''Students and faculty collaborate in cooking, cleaning, and setting up camp, and all the decisions, academic as well. Each learning community of students becomes a replica of society, [and this] has helped our graduates understand and deal with the many perspectives inherent in environmental issues.''

Graduate student Sally Soule agrees: ''Bus living isn't for everybody. Sometimes when I'm in the thick of it I worry most about when I'm going to eat, get warm, or sleep. But weeks later I realize how well this education is going to serve me. I'm not afraid to ask questions, deal with people in groups, or talk in front of people. I have definitely come to look at things differently.''

A sampling of AEI graduates who are putting their education to good use is impressive: an outdoor learning center director in Minnesota, a curator of ornithology at a museum in Texas, a teacher on a native- American reservation in the Southwest. Says Beth Nagusky, now an attorney for the Natural Resources Council at Maine: ''At AEI I learned to interact with people and try to find common ground. I see a real meshing of my education with the world.''

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