When I began teaching at SMUS in 2007, I had the good fortune to arrive for the pilot year of the Grade 10 Experiential Program, and help lead a group of students on a culminating trip to the West Coast Trail. As a new teacher, I was amazed at the learning opportunities this type of adventure provided, as I supported students exploring a study of the old-growth trees encountered in the Walbran Valley, as well as the rich First Nations history in Pachena Bay.

However, in one of the most powerful teachable moments that trip, I recall math teacher Mathew Geddes engaging inquisitive students in a casual conversation about fourth dimensional space around a campfire at Carmanah Beach. The students were hooked, and it wasn’t long before Mat, now inspired himself, led a lesson diagramming the fourth dimension (as much as it can be diagrammed!) using charcoal sticks from the fire and pieces of driftwood. In that moment it became clear to me how moving students out of the classroom and into a different environment made this teaching opportunity special. Thirteen years later I can still recall that moment in detail, and I’m certain many of the students can as well.

The Experiential Program has continued to evolve since its inception, expanding from an elective program engaging a small number of students to a grade-wide program in 2015. In 2018, the program again pivoted, organizing students into cohorts of their choice to allow them to go deeper into an area of interest, and foster deeper social connections with other students.

SMUS proudly has an incredible foundation of experiential education from which it can continue to grow, while always staying true to the guiding principles envisioned in the pilot year. Many of those principles present in the first years of the experiential program still exist, the foremost of which is that students learn from incredible and passionate teachers in dynamic and inspiring environments.

Sustainability, Leadership and Service

This year the themes of sustainability, leadership and service are being more deliberately embedded within the program. These same themes are present in Floreat, the school’s new strategic plan. As St. Michaels University School has mapped out a path to strengthen its place as a leader among independent schools, this program, too, aims to grow by broadening it to incorporate transferable skills and values, which the students can develop at SMUS, then draw from as they transition to education and life beyond the school.

This week, all of the Grade 10 students participated in our first ever “Sustainability Film Fest.” They heard from engaging speakers on topics of climate change and sustainability, and then had only a few hours to storyboard, film, edit and present a short film to their peers on a topic of sustainability related to their cohort. The day culminated in a festival showcasing student work from across the various cohorts, all highlighting important, student-driven messages of sustainability.

We didn’t know what to expect in 2007 when we departed for the West Coast Trail, or how students would be impacted by the journey. I certainly did not expect an exciting lesson about the fourth dimension to spiral out of a casual fire-side conversation with students. Similarly, we cannot anticipate precisely how the Sustainability Film Festival impacted our Grade 10 students. However, this is the value of the Experiential Program at our school: the learning outcomes are not predetermined.

Peter McLeod, one of the founders of the program and current Director of Outdoor Education, wrote in an inspiring paper on the subject of experiential education, “Our job as educators is to create intense experiences that last for a significant time, so that real connection between people and place can occur.” It is in these spaces that deep learning, as well as reflection, can take place.