Researchers receive $1.4M to study how outdoor education influences character

Pennsylvania State University

- Over the last 80 years, young people around the world have participated in outdoor expeditions and programs through Outward Bound. Research has shown that outdoor experiential education like the programs offered by Outward Bound help people develop teamwork, self-reliance, leadership and other positive attributes that can collectively be termed “character.” A new, $1.4 million award from the John Templeton Foundation will enable researchers from Penn State, the University of Utah, Outward Bound International, and Clemson University to study the commonalities and differences in Outward Bound Schools around the world and their impact on character development in different cultures and geographies.

Outward Bound operates in 34 nations, and its programs differ due to those cultural and geographic differences. Similarly, even though character generally means the same thing around the world, different cultures may have different values that are incorporated in their definition of character.

This three-year project aims to reveal how outdoor experiential education can most effectively build character and how to develop character in a multicultural setting while remaining sensitive to the communities served by Outward Bound and participants in their programs.

Research has repeatedly shown that outdoor experiential education develops character through purposeful, intense experiences that deliver powerful, positive outcomes. Pete Allison, associate professor of recreation, park and tourism management and director of the Kurt Hahn Consortium for Values and Experiential Learning at Penn State and principal investigator on the research project, has studied the connection between character and outdoor experiential education for years. He believes that understanding the multicultural nature of character building is more important now than ever before.

“As we live in an increasingly globalized world and work in increasingly diverse communities, understanding the cultural influences on character becomes more important,” Allison explained. “But incorporating lessons from other cultures is complex. How do we maintain and respect different cultures while building global citizens? Generous funding from the Templeton Foundation will help us answer that question.”

Founded in the United Kingdom in 1941, Outward Bound exists to provide authentic and intense outdoor experiential learning that helps young people prepare for life. By 2021, Outward Bound was operating on six continents, and more than 1.2 million students had participated in an Outward Bound course.

“Outdoor education operates within a cultural context,” said Jim Sibthorp, professor of parks, recreation and tourism at the University of Utah and one of the project’s investigators. “As a global leader in outdoor education, Outward Bound is the ideal research partner for us to examine cross-cultural outdoor education and youth programs that build character. Countries around the globe approach outdoor education differently, and we have a lot to learn from these diverse approaches to youth development.”

Around the world, Outward Bound Schools operate differently. Outward Bound Taiwan offers a lot of highly intense, one- or two-day courses. By contrast, in New Zealand many courses are 21-days long. In Oman, the vast majority of participants are members of the Muslim faith, and courses are almost always based in the desert and mountains with no water-based elements. By contrast, Outward Bound Philadelphia primarily serves inner-city youth and runs most of its courses on boats on the Delaware Water Gap. These and other adaptations – driven by culture, religion, economic forces and geography – create different experiences that all lead to similar types of growth.

“In health research, if an intervention is adapted at different sites, that is typically viewed as a problem with the implementation of the intervention,” said Theresa Melton, assistant professor of youth development leadership at Clemson University and another investigator on the project. “As researchers, we view Outward Bound as a character intervention, but we do not view its adaptation as a problem. We see it as a great opportunity to better understand how character is defined around the world and how various cultures have made the Outward Bound model work. We are very grateful to the Templeton Foundation for this opportunity to explore the interaction between culture and character education around the world.”

The John Templeton Foundation exists “to enable people to create lives of purpose and meaning,” according to the foundation’s statement of purpose. Because people flourish when they build character, this research project advances the foundation’s mission and priorities.

Outward Bound International will support this research through access and collaboration.

“Outward Bound International is looking forward to collaborating with researchers from Penn State, the University of Utah, and Clemson University on this far-reaching global research project that will support and further Outward Bound’s global research agenda,” said Sarah Wiley, strategic projects manager for Outward Bound International and investigator on this project. “This project will help the Outward Bound network of Schools continue to develop and deliver high-impact outdoor learning programs for young people around the world.”

In addition to the research team, one of the pre-eminent character scholars in the world-Angela Duckworth, Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania – serves as an adviser to this project.

“Outward Bound is one of the only programs whose benefits on psychological development seem to last – or even grow – for years,” said Duckworth. “I cannot think of a worthier pursuit than figuring out the magic of Outward Bound. The implications for character development are inestimable.”

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