NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Implementing adventure education at Bethel College was a high priority for its former head of student life, and his successor is seeing that dream to reality.
For several years before he left Bethel to take an assignment with Mennonite Central Committee, Aaron Chappell-Deckert was working to establish an “adventure course” on campus. New Vice President for Student Life Chad Childs gladly took on that task.
In cooperation with Next Element Consulting LLC, a Newton leadership training group (see www.next-element.com/ ), and with the contracted services of Tom Leahy of Leahy & Associates, Lafayette, Colo., Bethel will begin this fall to construct its own adventure course adjacent to Sand Creek Trail in the northeast corner of the campus.
Most immediately, Childs says, “We’re looking for volunteer labor to help our maintenance staff clear brush, tree limbs and rocks” in the area where the course will be built – along a hedgerow that skirts the trail near the Memorial Grove trailhead.
Adventure education is based on experiential learning and can take place inside or outside the classroom, but often happens by means of an adventure course, which may also be called a challenge course or ropes course.
All three terms refer to a collection of obstacles, or elements, built among trees, from poles or indoors. These courses allow participants to engage in activities that challenge them physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually. “Low” activities are close to or on the ground, with “high” activities above the ground.
The adventure course elements challenge participants to come together and work as a team to develop and implement solutions. Each element emphasizes different group characteristics such as self-confidence, communication, cooperation and trust. As teams work through the elements of the adventure course, they learn about themselves and their relationships to others and develop leadership and problem-solving skills.
In many adventure courses, including the one planned for Bethel, a trained and certified course facilitator will guide each group through the course and providing time and space for participants to discuss and reflect on their experiences.
Bethel’s course initially will focus on low elements (the highest structure planned at this point is a 14-foot wall, which teams must figure out how to get all members over), including some that are accessible to older adults and participants with physical disabilities.
“We’re talking to Cindy Combs, [a Bethel graduate] who teaches adapted physical education in the Newton schools,” Childs says. Combs may do some grant-writing, and if plans are successful, Bethel could have the only accessible adventure course in Kansas, certainly in the region.
Although an adventure course is a relatively low-cost addition to Bethel’s infrastructure, it does involve some expense. Having as much volunteer labor as possible will help defray the costs. A bulk of the funds will come from Bethel’s 10-year contract with Pepsi that includes regular contributions to athletics and student activities.
The cooperation between Bethel and Next Element initially will involve facilitator training. Nate Regier and Jamie Rensberg of Next Element have already worked with Bethel’s residence life staff in team-building and leadership development. The idea is for Next Element personnel to train Bethel facilitators for the adventure course, in return for being able to schedule it for use with Next Element’s own clients.
One long-term goal includes working with Next Element to develop an experiential learning curriculum using the adventure course, Childs says.
The adventure course to start with will be intended largely for the use of Bethel College students, faculty and staff, particularly athletic teams and residence life staff. Childs also envisions it being attractive to hall groups and mods. An adventure course facilitates “communication, trust, accountability and responsibility,” he says. “We could start out each school year working with [those concepts] through the adventure course and then use it to reinforce [learnings] when issues come up during the year.”
Other hopes for the adventure course down the road are to have enough facilitators (perhaps sharing facilitators with Next Element) that Bethel can bring in sports teams and other groups from area schools and other colleges – not only a bridge-builder but also a possible revenue source for the college – and to make it relevant to the academic disciplines. Brian Epperson in the business department and Doug Siemens in education are already thinking of ways to incorporate it into their curriculum, Childs says.
Childs notes that no other Kansas private four-year college currently has an adventure course. “This will help with accreditation and review, when measuring the effectiveness of co-curricular activities,” he says.
Most of all, though, the adventure course is for students and the broader Bethel community, he says. “The adventure course can develop skills, through experiential learning, in how to trust, communicate and work with others. It will add value to a Bethel education. It can help residence life and student activities intersect with athletics and academics.
“For a relatively low start-up cost,” he says, “there are a lot of benefits in terms of recruitment, retention and revenue.”
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.