When Oregon voters approved Measure 99 last fall, they created a fund that allocates lottery dollars to create outdoor education programs for all students in fifth or sixth grade in the state.
And indirectly, they also created Kristopher Elliott’s dream job.
The measure, which has $24 million in funding for the current two-year state budget cycle, directed that Oregon State University’s Extension Service to administer the awarding of grants to school districts for funding existing or establishing new overnight outdoor school programs. (The extension service gets to use some of the funds for administering the program.)
Elliott, who has doctorate in science education from OSU, was working in Tennessee as the director of science, technology, engineering and math education with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools when OSU listed the position as the head of the new program.
“If I could have designed my dream job, well, someone built that,” he said.
Elliott, who said he had a very inspiring experience at outdoor school while growing up in Linden, California, liked that the program sought to bring outdoor school to every child in the state and that it was something that Oregon voters supported by a wide margin. It combines, he said, his two great passions: the outdoors and education.
“Every aspect of it spoke to me,” said Elliott, who taught high school science for nine years in Fresno, California, before earning his doctorate.
He started his dream job on Sept. 1, and has been working since then to expand on the work done by OSU extension to get the program off the ground for this year.
“It’s been a very busy month,” he said.
Elliott said districts have to plan outdoor school curriculum and apply for grants, but all districts that meet the baseline criteria should get funding for a five-day outdoor school program, although districts with shorter programs would get less money. He said there are some new outdoor school programs being planned already, but he is expecting more next year.
“This is the first year, so we’ll be learning a lot,” he said.
Elliott said as the program gets more established, he will be working to expand the outdoor school curriculum that the extension already has (the extension had previously managed a much smaller outdoor school grant program). Elliott said districts would be welcome to use the extension curriculum or develop their own.
“Our goal is to support and assist, not mandate,” he said.
Elliott said eventually he’ll have people working for him: possibly a few in the office in Corvallis and six part-time regional coordinators working at extension offices throughout the state to help school districts with their programs and potentially working on regional adaptations for curriculum.
“In five years, I hope we have as close to a 100 percent participation rate as possible,” he said.
Elliott said he wants all students to have access to outdoor school because students are more engaged in nature. He recalled that at outdoor school as a kid, he went on a guided night hike without flashlights and he got a firsthand lesson on how sensitive the optic nerve is and how the human eye can adjust to darkness. This experience made him want to learn more, he said, and he’s excited about the chance to give kids the chance to have their own influential experiences in the outdoors.
“You learn every time you are in the outdoors,” he said.