Saskatchewan Outdoor & Enviromental Educators Association turns 40

I have been looking back through the SOEEA archives and interviewed Jack McKenzie in preparation for this article.  Video of my discussion with Jack will be up soon. Please let me know if you have any further info regarding SOEEA or questions about the associations history. I think it is a valuable exercise to dive into the history of an association to really develop an understanding of missions and visions. I am now far more driven in this regard thanks to my research project.  Enjoy!

40th Anniversary Article
by: Kyle Lichtenwald

40 years ago a group of passionate educators came together to create an organization that we have come to know as the Saskatchewan Outdoor & Environmental Educators Association (SOEEA). In the beginning outdoor education was emphasized and the environmental awareness aspect not yet been realized; the group was known as S.O.E.A – Saskatchewan Outdoor Educators Association. Our pioneers came together to promote the importance of learning in and about our natural world within Saskatchewan education systems. As Jack Mackenzie noted in a recent interview, “[T]he goal was to blow fresh air into the school system”. From the beginning, an inter-disciplinary approach was utilized. Early leaders came together from many subject areas including Science, Physical Education, Arts Ed., Social Studies, Math, History and from many levels including youth agencies, Saskatchewan Universities, and various School Boards. It was recognized that much of the curricular content could be applied and taught in outdoor environments.

Through the early years S.O.E.A offered a number of conferences, workshops and then in 1973 the first issue of our newsletter, Envisage, was published. In 1974, S.O.E.A assisted the ministry with preparing for and publishing ‘Out to Learn: Guidelines and Standards Manual for Outdoor Environmental Education’. This was a provincial education document that was designed to assist teachers in developing safe and well-organized outdoor education programs. Out to Learn was more recently revised and republished in collaboration with Sask. Ed. in 1991. These publishing efforts and 5 successful conferences lead to the broadening of S.O.E.A’s reputation as a model association that was quickly becoming recognized to educators across Canada. In 1975 S.O.E.A hosted Canada’s second National Outdoor Education Conference, “Challenge for Education – Hope for Environment”. This renowned event was held during four warm autumn days and hosted in Fort San. This conference brought 400+ people together to work towards our common goal of infusing effective outdoor education practices. The keynote speaker was the sought after Dr. Julian Smith, a professor from Michigan State University that had mentored many Canadians interested in the area of outdoor education. Dr. Smith had long seen outdoor education as a means for curriculum enrichment. In his work he noted that our natural environment provides a learning climate which allows students direct and authentic experiences¹.

Environmental concerns began to enter Saskatchewan’s collective conscious in the late 70’s and in 1978 the name was changed to Saskatchewan Outdoor & Environmental Educators Association under Chairman Barry Mitschke’s direction. The name change, as well as a revamped mission and vision, came as a result of shifting societal concerns. Another milestone at this time was the awarding of the first Melanson award to Jack McKenzie for his long term commitment to outdoor and environmental education in Saskatchewan. Since then, 19 other notable Saskatchewan educators have received this award for innovative teaching techniques, demonstrating knowledge of natural environments and taking a holistic approach to outdoor education. To these recognized individuals we gratefully pass on a heart-felt thanks for their continued efforts.

Through out the 1980’s SOEEA volunteers continued to host numerous conferences and workshops. During this time, members visited destinations of Candle Lake, Cypress Hills, Saskatoon, Lumsden, Waskesiu, Moose Jaw, Fort Qu’appelle and Moose Mountain Provincial Park. Numerous articles and resources continued to be shared through Envisage newsletter. Long time S.O.E.E.A chair person and Melanson recipient, Barry Mitschke, wrote “The Status of Formal and Informal Outdoor/Environmental Education in Saskatchewan: 1986 A SOEEA Research paper”. This involved a province wide survey of educators on the status of Outdoor/Environmental Education. In addition, SOEEA worked with Saskatchewan Parks and Recreation to launch the still popular Project Wild Resource Guide. It was and is common for SOEEA to send members to national and international conferences yearly. A highlight from 1987, involved 6 SOEEA delegates that went to the NAAEE conference in Quebec City to learn from and collaborate with leaders in the field.

Over the years, SOEEA collected membership dues and received minor grants for initiatives and continue rely heavily on the work done by strong collective efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers. Until the early 90’s financial support from SOEEA had been limited. This changed in May 1994 when we were able to start supporting Environmental Action projects and field excursions. This financial support helped teachers and students get outside, promote active healthy lifestyles, appreciate the natural environment, challenge participants’ thinking and encourage long-term changes in behaviour. Many Saskatchewan students have benefited from this funding during the years.

By 1995, SOEEA’s mission had shifted from being focused on outdoor learning and pursuit, towards a much stronger emphasis on environmental concerns. Our eligibility as a recreation association had come under question and we worked on reviewing our mission and goals. Through this process we re-focused on the importance of becoming active within our environment and getting outside again. It was at this time that SOEEA introduced the first Eco-tour to the newly establish Grasslands National Park, in south-west Saskatchewan. These tours continue to attract many interested parties and help folks gain awareness of our different eco-regions. Through these trips, many gained an appreciation for the importance of outdoor education and are inspired to bring their students and family’s to the areas visited. This year SOEEA is hosting its 15th Eco-Tour to the Boreal Learning Centre in Ness Creek, Saskatchewan.

We have again reviewed our strategic planning in recent years and re-configured our structure to include collaborative working groups. Our mission and goals have been re-vamped to clarify our current vision and lead us onward towards our quest for interdisciplinary, progressive education within our province. We strive to assist in the creation, co-ordination and delivery of integrated high quality outdoor and environmental education programs. Saskatchewan students deserve an education that takes them outside and offers first hand experiences. SOEEA labours to support Saskatchewan educators in the development of appropriate and responsible endeavours to meet these needs of our students. Going forward, we are moving to offer certification programs in the area’s of outdoor and environmental education. It is our hope that through these programs Saskatchewan educators will be empowered to explore new techniques, develop local programs and assist their colleagues in the development of projects and programs.

As we look back and celebrate our past at this time, our future still plays prominently. Our board understands that we need to continue to push ourselves beyond the classroom walls, to build connections & partnerships, support each other, and to come together in a community of activism in pursuit of sustainability goals. We will be able to sustain ourselves and our efforts through our connections with one another.

¹SchoolYard Enhanced Learning: Using the Outdoors as an Instructional Tool, K-8. By Herbert Broda 2007