Connecting youth to nature

“As soon as you take young people into the natural world and away from routines, they become more curious, observant and open to possibilities.”

— Lisa Glithero

By Michelle Hibler

When the Canada C3 expedition icebreaker sails out of Toronto in June on its epic journey through the Northwest Passage to Victoria, uOttawa’s Faculty of Education will be wishing it a successful trip. The Faculty will also be represented on board in the person of Professor Lisa Glithero (PhD ’15), the initiative’s education lead.

Organized by Students on Ice, an experiential program for youth to learn about the polar regions, Canada C3 – Coast to Coast to Coast is a signature project to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. It is only Glithero’s latest adventure in a career devoted to connecting youth to the natural world.

Nature is in her blood. “When I was eight years old, my parents dropped me and my brother off at summer camp,” she says. “My brother called home two days later to be picked up. I stayed for 20 years and became a director.”

What she loved about camp is what still drives her today — community and nature. “The sense of living in community with people and being immersed in the natural world — that’s the place where the world makes the most sense to me, where I feel most alive.”

And that’s what informs her as an educator. “The lens through which you look at education and how you stand in the world are the same,” she says.

Education without barriers

Glithero’s teaching career has taken her from Nepal to Bella Bella, BC, to uOttawa, but there has always been a constant. “Wherever I’ve been — elementary school, high school and now teacher education — not a week goes by when I don’t take a class outside,” she says. “As soon as you take young people into the natural world and away from routines, they become more curious, observant and open to possibilities."

Lisa Glithero directs students' gaze toward bird cliffs as she teaches from a Zodiac in the Canadian Arctic. Photo: Trevor Lush

She admits that her drive for experiential, place-based learning sometimes made her a black sheep. “After a while, I knew I had to step out of the public school system and pursue the kind of learning and teaching where there weren’t so many barriers,” she says.

The opportunity came in 2003, when she heard an interview with Students on Ice founder Geoff Green. Two months later, she found herself on a ship to Antarctica. Months after that, she was the organization’s education director, a post she held from 2004 to 2008.

“If you put students in places that remain some of the wildest on Earth, that distance from their everyday life offers a perspective that can’t be anything but transformative,” she says. “You shed a lot of layers of urban life. That sparks the asking of questions that are, for me, the foundation of education — what is my relationship with myself, my family, my peers? What is my relationship with my community and with the natural world?

“When you start to explore what those relationships are as a young person, I think it creates a sense of self, a sense of place that becomes a platform from which you choose a direction in life.

“It was through that experience that I wanted to go back into public education: How do we create these kinds of experiences more often, with the same kind of impact and quality?”  she says.

Lisa Glithero, at right, facilitates a focus group with research participants at Ottawa's Forest and Nature School. Photo: Jennifer Rottman

Nature as co-educator

That quest is the driving force behind Glithero’s research. As the lead of a multi-year collaborative inquiry between uOttawa, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada, she is examining the impact of nature-based learning on primary school students.

Now in its third year, the pilot project has been taking classes out to Ottawa’s Forest and Nature School one day a week for six weeks. Participating teachers report higher student achievement and engagement, increased energy and self-esteem. Levels of anxiety are lower.

Students also relate better to one another because they have a shared experience, even if it is marvelling over a dead porcupine. “A shared experience becomes the foundation that allows the deeper learning to start,” Glithero says.

All of her experiences and passion are coming together in the 150-day Canada C3 journey. “Journeys transcend cultures, and this is a journey to connect Canadians,” she says.

Teachers and students across Canada will share in the journey through the Canada C3 Digital Classroom, which will provide curriculum-linked learning modules for all grades. Teachers nationwide are invited to contribute.

“We also created a partnership of 13 faculties of education to develop learning modules that align with the Canada 150 themes: diversity and inclusion, reconciliation, youth engagement and the environment,” Glithero says. The digital classroom launches in early 2017.

“I love having a foot in both worlds, in academia and in the community,” she says. “The applied scholarship (in the community and across the country) allows education to extend beyond the classroom walls.”

Students on Ice participants hike on the Greenland icecap. Photo: Lee Narraway

Main photo:
Lisa Glithero crossing the Davis Strait from the Canadian Arctic to Greenland in August 2016. Photo: Lee Narraway

Watch the Canada C3 video.

In Itelliq Fiord, Greenland, Students on Ice participants engage in reflection and sharing circles to begin the process of transferring their expedition experience to their everyday lives. Photo: Lee Narraway


Back to top