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National Park Service Sets Its Sights On A Big GOAL

Since its establishment in 1916, the National Park System has grown to include more than 84 million acres tended to by 22,000 permanent, temporary, and seasonal National Park Service (NPS) employees each year. 

Recognizing a need to improve management practices within the NPS, the Generating Organizational Advancement and Leadership (GOAL) Academy was first implemented in 2008 for Grand Canyon National Park employees. As of 2013, the mid-level leadership development program covers all regions in the contiguous 48 states and has enrolled three 20-person cohorts. 

Grand canyon2
Photo Credit: Luke Avery

 The GOAL Academy hopes to cultivate a comprehensive leadership management strategy to prepare the next generation of NPS leaders. The Academy also seeks to enhance NPS leadership in an effort to become one of the top places to work in the federal government.

Designed as a 10-month program, the GOAL Academy comprises five four-day training sessions, leadership coaching, and an extensive actionable group project. Each session focuses on different competencies including self-awareness, resilience, building effective teams, conflict management, leading change, executive leadership, and leveraging resources. The group project then challenges participants to put their newly gained leadership skills into practice.


To capitalize on external expertise, the GOAL Academy partners with various service providers including NOLS. Academy participants partake in a NOLS Leadership Navigation Challenge (LNC) on the final day of the first session. The LNC is a great opportunity for individuals with time constraints to take advantage of the NOLS leadership curriculum.

During the LNC, each 20-member cohort is divided into teams of five to seven and presented with a challenge designed to test the team’s ability to navigate the tension between the desire for the small group to succeed and additionally assisting in the large group’s success.


Prior to the NOLS’ element of the training, Academy goers complete the Myers-Briggs Inventory and focus on understanding the significance of group decision-making, leadership, and communication. Then, the LNC solidifies learning from the previous days and sets the foundation for building relationships as teams begin work on their group projects.

To date, the program has been very successful—it has expanded each year and 20 of the 58 current graduates have earned promotions. At the end of the ongoing cohorts, 98 National Park Service employees will be GOAL Academy graduates. 

Permalink | Posted by Erin Daily on Apr 11, 2013 in the following categories: Professional Training

Risk Management Training: Kick Your RM Practices into Tip-Top Shape

After years spent churning around the corporate buzzword blender, the phrase “risk management” has too often become associated with lengthy legal documents filled with useless jargon and stale policies. For the thousands of organizations in the outdoor recreation industry, this perceived norm is not acceptable. Neither lingo nor blanketed universal procedures are suitable when peoples’ well-being and, in many cases, lives are on the line.

Recognizing a need to strengthen risk management practices throughout the outdoor community, NOLS created its first Risk Management Training (RMT) in 2005, which has since grown to 10 trainings annually across the United States. The two-day seminar is designed to provide a structured approach and tools to build risk management plans appropriate for individual organizations.

RMT instructor, Nate Ostis believes participants benefit from the training because it enables them “to look down on their program from 1,000 feet and see how every component plays a significant role in generating a healthy culture of risk management.” 

Eleven years after first becoming a NOLS instructor, Ostis continues to teach field courses, Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) courses, and Professional Training courses including RMTs, the most recent of which took place in Seattle, March 5-6. Following the training, Ostis shared his belief that, “the best way to travel and work in the outdoors is to prepare proactively rather than reactively.”

In addition to working for NOLS, Ostis also owns and operates his own swift water rescue training company. He reflected,  “I had to start at ground zero establishing our own risk management practices. I can relate to RMT participants that find the task of writing a risk management plan to be somewhat overwhelming and enjoy sharing my experience taking small steps toward big gains.”

Ostis emphasized that, “risk management isn’t a checklist; it's a culture—a journey along an endless track.” He went on to explain, “It's one thing to require first aid certification. It's another to run a monthly first aid scenario to keep skills sharp. It's the little details that separate amateurs from professionals, and it's the little details that allow risk management to become a culture versus simply a checklist.”

Sarah McKerlich, Director of Risk Management for grades 6-12 at Glenlyon Norfolk School, participated in the Seattle RMT earlier this month. GNS, a co-ed independent day school in British Columbia, offers a variety of outdoor and service learning opportunities to its student body.

In her position, McKerlich supports daily field trips to natural and urban environments, the extensive outdoor education program, as well as local and global service projects and international student travel. McKerlich said of her role: “I like to think of myself as ‘Director of all things fun.’ My goal is to create structurally safe programs and to establish steps to maintain that safety in order to ensure learning and enjoyment for all.” 

McKerlich looked to the RMT to “gain insight into how to further develop the school’s risk management practices and to build a framework allowing [her] to audit the programs in the future.” Following the training, she said her “goals were absolutely met. The pragmatic approach to the scenarios, templates, and action plan gave me tangible, useful takeaways to apply directly to my work at GNS.”  

Ostis reiterated the importance the RMT places on individualization: “We don't train you to do it our way, we train you to do it the best way you can based on your values, your mission, and your goals for providing amazing experiences for your participants.” 

Permalink | Posted by Erin Daily on Mar 21, 2013 in the following categories: Professional Training

City Girl Loves Life in the Wilderness

Accustomed to California sunshine and city living, 16-year-old Ale Sternberg was launched into a world unknown last fall as she spent a week backpacking through the North Cascade Mountains in Washington state.  

As juniors at The Archer School for Girls, a private all-girls grades 6-12 school in Los Angeles, Sternberg and her classmates traveled to the Pacific Northwest to participate in the NOLS/Archer Arrow Week Expedition.


The Arrow Week Expedition program, designed with an educational progression for seventh-, ninth-, and eleventh-grade girls, stands as a unique experiential learning opportunity, fostering the development of backcountry skills, leadership, and deeper peer relationships. Over the three-course progression, the girls’ knowledge, experience, and abilities grow, as do their personal and team responsibilities for the technical and interpersonal aspects of the course.

Reflecting on her NOLS experience, Sternberg recalled, “I was anxious before the Archer Arrow Week. I had some idea what to expect, but I was still really nervous to be out in the woods.”

Despite her nerves, Sternberg embraced the course and “loved [the expedition] because I learned so much about myself and my classmates. After the trip I also realized how much I understood about being a leader and team member.”


She also developed a stronger appreciation for the beauty of the outdoors and found it “relaxing not to worry about responding to emails or texts for a week.” 

In addition to the technical and leadership skills gained, Sternberg reminisced about the fantastic “bonding experience with my classmates. Every night we would all crowd into one tent and tell stories.”

As she grew closer to her classmates, she also created fond memories of her instructors. “I had two of the best instructors in the world. It blew my mind how much they learned about me in just six days,” she said.


Sternberg, a high school junior, challenges herself to live in the present, despite the constant pull to think about her future. Consequently, she was grateful that the course allowed her to “just be present in any given hike or activity.”

Inspired by her Arrow Week Expedition, Sternberg decided to take another NOLS course and is excited to participate in a 30-day backpacking expedition through the Wind River Mountains this summer. She looks forward to “bonding with complete strangers, seeing a new place, sharing [her] knowledge, and improving skills that can only be achieved through practice.”

Permalink | Posted by Erin Daily on Mar 6, 2013 in the following categories: Pacific Northwest, Professional Training

Cornell Cultivates Leadership, Elementally

As both a NOLS instructor and an MBA student at Cornell’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Jamie Hunt acts as a one-of-a-kind bridge between individuals typically sporting an array of Patagonia apparel and those who don blazers and button-ups on a more regular basis. Hunt’s distinctive perspective helped forge the pathway for the first Johnson Leadership Expedition, a 10-day hiking course in Patagonia for academic credit that took place in January. 

Photo Credit: Alex Chang

Hunt pointed out that, “leadership is the new business school ‘buzz word.’ Yet, few business schools provide MBAs with the opportunity to lead in situations with real consequences.”

From his own experience, Hunt knows “A NOLS expedition provides a unique opportunity to fail, to give and receive face-to-face feedback, and to reflect.” He went on to explain, “In the mountains, there are few distractions—no partner to call, no iPhone to pull out, no game to watch—one learns to accept reality as it is, instead of how he or she would like it to be.” 

Photo Credit: Alex Chang

During the first three days of the course, students faced unexpected challenges presented by suboptimal weather conditions: 30-45 degrees with steady precipitation culminating in the traverse of a snowy pass in similar circumstances. Fierce wind repeatedly knocked participants to the ground. Though trying and unpleasant, Hunt acknowledged that the bad weather brought the team together and helped them recognize that they had a greater tolerance for adversity than expected.  

Photo Credit: Steve Markgraf

In addition to time spent in the field, participants also partook in pre- and post-expedition sessions designed to support the experiential learning process and enhance the analytical rigor of the leadership material. The classes were designed and led by Johnson Associate Professor of Management and Organizations James Detert. Pre-expedition sessions centered around active followership, peer leadership, decision-making styles, and how to effectively cope with stress in leadership situations. After the expedition, a collective debrief was followed by individualized coaching. Students gave and received honest feedback about observed leadership and followership capabilities while the coaching focused on developing plans for transferring learning from the trek to their everyday lives and professional careers. 

Photo Credit: Alex Chang

The Johnson School's Director of Leadership Programs, Jerry Rizzo, who was also a member of the expedition, highlighted one of the business school’s main objectives: “to teach an ongoing cycle of instruction, experience, and review.”

He explained, “It is hard to find ways to provide meaningful experiences that reinforce classroom learning.” However, he observed “NOLS takes students to an environment away from day-to-day interruptions and allows them to fully focus on their personal leadership style as well as areas of strength and areas for improvement.” 

Photo Credit: Alex Chang

Student Alex Chang reiterated Rizzo’s assertion: “The backcountry life removed all the front-country distractions, and my leadership style and personality came through to me a lot more clearly than if I was in a leadership training retreat in the front-country."

Permalink | Posted by Erin Daily on Feb 28, 2013 in the following categories: Patagonia, Professional Training

Columbia Business School Students Tackle Patagonia

Last December, 11 Columbia Business School (CBS) students completed the first 10-day CBS Leadership Expedition to Patagonia. Maya Mandel, CBS class of 2013 and president of the Outdoor Adventures Club was responsible for bringing the course to fruition. Initially introduced to NOLS through a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article, Maya was interested in what NOLS could offer her and her peers. After discussing several different options, it was determined that an expedition to Patagonia would best suit the CBS students. 


Mandel, a second year student from Israel, noted that her decision to attend CBS was not fueled by a desire to change careers. Rather, she said, “I was eager to push myself outside my comfort zone. I wanted to create meaningful relationships with new colleagues… and I hoped to be inspired to do things that I never would have done otherwise.” The inaugural CBS Leadership Expedition to Patagonia helped her do just that. In fact, she stated, the course “was the pinnacle of my CBS experience thus far.”


The expedition consisted of 10 days spent in the remote Northern Patagonia Mountains. Mandel reminisced, “We carried 60-pound backpacks, crossed rivers, climbed mountain passes, drank maté, devoured the dulce de leche treat, handled fatigue and injuries, enjoyed two to three sunny mornings, and survived the last day of the world, (at least according to the Mayan Calendar), and witnessed first-hand how in such a short time period we learn new skills, adapt, grow, and lead.”


Mandel spoke highly of their three instructors and explained, “[They] introduced leadership principals, decision-making styles, and encouraged us to conduct an open and honest feedback session at the end of every day. We learned about self-leadership, designated leadership, and most importantly how to be an effective active follower.  We lived by the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles and practiced good expedition behavior (EB) day in and day out.”


Regarding the many lessons gained from such a unique expedition experience, Mandel reflected, “We had the opportunity to focus on the simple things in life, to receive (and give) sincere feedback from teammates, to face and overcome obstacles never faced before, to practice all kinds of leadership, to laugh, to explore, to reflect, to challenge, to conquer, to support.” She closed by saying, “The inaugural CBS Leadership Expedition to Patagonia was everything I was hoping my MBA experience would be.”

Permalink | Posted by Erin Daily on Feb 19, 2013 in the following categories: Patagonia, Professional Training

Camp Dudley Takes It West

When Camp Dudley, a residential summer camp based out of Westport, New York, decided to expand its focus on wilderness-based leadership development, Outdoor Program Director Scott Steen knew exactly who he wanted to call. Originally introduced to NOLS through instructor friends, Steen believes “NOLS is a premier leadership development organization.” 


Camp Dudley’s dedication to “develop moral, personal, physical, and leadership skills in the spirit of fellowship and fun” led to the creation of this new course in 2012, allowing Dudley’s young leaders-in-training to live out the mission in a unique outdoor setting. Although the specific activities that take place at camp may vary significantly from what happens on a NOLS course, Steen contends that the alignment of mission and values between the two organizations make them a great fit for one another.


The inaugural NOLS Camp Dudley and Kiniya (Dudley’s sister camp) Leadership Expedition was a 21-day course consisting of a 14-day backpacking section and a week of rock-climbing in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. Campers learned to travel confidently across mountainous terrain using 3rd and 4th class terrain management, travel planning, and route selection skills. Opportunities to fly-fish, identify diverse flora and fauna, and see spectacular views arose throughout the trip. During the rock-climbing portion, top-rope belay techniques, rappelling, and basic safety techniques were covered. 


In addition to the technical skills gained, Steen noted that campers received great benefit from improved “leadership skills that can be applied beyond the camp or course context to life in college and everything thereafter.” Camp Dudley’s motto is simple: “The other fellow first.” This is a motto Steen considers well taught in the outdoor classroom: “In a remote wilderness setting, individuals in a group can learn how to live well with each other, to count on one another, and to consider the needs of the group.” As a result of the expedition, campers also experienced real “self-discovery and a deep appreciation for the natural world.” 


Camp Dudley staff member Dylan Pollock served as a facilitator on the expedition; he ensured that the course stayed true to Dudley’s roots while fully embracing the NOLS curriculum. For Pollock, the laid back, fun atmosphere coupled with a determination to travel efficiently and work together as a team set the trip apart. As the expedition progressed, Pollock was struck by the campers’ growing “awareness of their strengths and weaknesses and ability to make improvements. It was incredible to see over the course of 20 days.” 


Pollock reflected on one camper who “was not the outdoors type person” but who “became the go-to for an opinion on map reading. People felt confident getting his opinion.” Furthermore, Pollock recalls a defining moment when, after the course, those who participated spoke to an audience fluidly and openly about their experience. He noted that their demeanor and comportment revealed to all that they had developed as leaders.

Permalink | Posted by Erin Daily on Feb 7, 2013 in the following categories: Professional Training

Veterans return from wilderness with NOLS and the Sierra Club

Logo_sierraclub_horizIn early May, seven veterans and one Army wife embarked on a six-day leadership expedition in the Gila Wilderness. Organized by the Sierra Club's Mission Outdoors and run by NOLS Professional Training, the course was open to—and free for—veterans. The goal of the course was to give veterans an opportunity to become outdoor leaders.

Although it is easy to assume that the culture of NOLS and that of the military are incongruent, the very core of what NOLS offers—wilderness expeditions—is exactly why the two are a perfect match. As one participant noted, returning to the unregimented world of civilian life can be an incredible challenge for veterans.

“I think all veterans suffer to some extent as they leave military service in finding their way in the next chapter of life. I felt a bit like Morgan Freeman’s character Red in the movie Shawshank Redeption. ‘I’m an institutional man, and not sure I can make it on the outside,’” explained USNR Trevor Ivory in a recent post on the Sierra Club blog. “Even though I was outside my comfort zone from day [one], the interactions with staff and other veterans built a confidence and sense of self and team accomplishment that I hadn’t experienced since my time on active duty.”

Photo Credit: Acacia Elkins

This kind of reaction echoes the experience Stacy Bare, the Sierra Club’s national military families and veterans representative, has had with outdoor recreation and summarizes why he helped create the program.

“[On the course], I reminded myself that veterans and service members love to serve, love to challenge themselves, love to push themselves farther, and to be part of a team,” commented Bare. “I reminded myself that wilderness—the outdoors—[is] a necessary part of the human experience and that cutting ourselves off from that inhibits are ability to thrive in modern times.”

Photo Credit: Acacia Elkins

Perhaps nothing could better synthesize the purpose of the course than the slogan for the National Park Service: “Experience your America.” Through its partnership with the Sierra Club, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Operation Free, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, NOLS now enables those who fought for America to enjoy America and to develop skills for leading others in the wilderness.

Read more reflections from the course on the Sierra Club Military Families and Veterans Initiative blog.

Permalink | Posted by Alison Hudson on May 23, 2012 in the following categories: Leadership, Professional Training

Faculty Summit workshop examines technology in the backcountry

As the final day of the second annual NOLS Faculty Summit began to wind down, the final workshops of the week imparted final insights and discussions.

Faculty Summit 12Brad Christensen photo

One of these was on the topic of communication and technologies in the wilderness classroom, an ever-evolving subject. Facilitated by NOLS Professional Training Program Coordinator Marcio Paes Barreto, the forum explored questions along continuums such as “Is a GPS enabling or distracting? How about a Kindle, with or without search capabilities?” and “Where do you stand on managing technology like iPhones on a continuum from physical removal to a verbal contract?”

These questions were posed not with the goal of setting or revising NOLS policy, but of discussing shifting technological advances and reliance, as well as the value of removing (or relying on) such tools while on a NOLS course. The forum examined faculty members’ perspectives and experiences with radios, phones, personal locator beacons, cameras, and new navigation apps on iPads.

NOLS has always believed that living in nature—free of society’s distractions—teaches responsibility, that wilderness is the best place to develop leadership skills. Nonetheless, devices like GPS and satellite phones can serve as both educational and risk management tools. As the wave of technology rolls forward, NOLS must remain on that wave, not behind it, as it seeks the best ways to educate students.

Ultimately, the group agreed that when communication and information technology overlap, disruption can be avoided when educational goals are incorporated. This, of course, will be an intriguing wave to watch as NOLS leads the outdoor education industry into the future.

For a video from this event and more, keep an eye on NOLS.TV starting next week.

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on May 18, 2012 in the following categories: Instructor News, Professional Training

Off-Campus Semester to Start with NOLS

Elon-1In August, a group of incoming freshmen at Elon University will embark on a 22-day NOLS course in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. While this may not be reminiscent of the typical freshman orientation, it is actually the start of Elon’s inaugural Gap Semester Program, during which students spend their entire first semester of college off campus. At the conclusion of their NOLS course, the group will travel back to North Carolina, stopping in four distinct locations to perform service projects. After that, the students will travel to Costa Rica, where they will live in home-stays.

“Starting with NOLS, [we expect] the students will develop self-reliance, a stronger sense of who they are, as well as a cohesive group identity. [Additionally], the type of experience they will have with NOLS will provide them with a substantial foundation for the service projects and the international experience,” explained Rex Waters, associate dean of students.

This novel program reflects Elon’s dedication to launching “innovative pathways in undergraduate and graduate education,” as well as the school’s “ethos of engaged learning.”

“[Elon, is an] institution, that is always looking ahead at what is best for our students; [our programs are] proactive, not reactive,” said Waters.

Proactive thinking is exactly why the program begins with NOLS.

“The significance of the NOLS program can’t help but transform the students by making them more self aware and thus enabling them to look at the world more broadly,” Waters said. “This innovative transition experience will hopefully provide life experiences integrated with a curriculum that will serve as a launch pad in unleashing the potential of these students on the Elon campus when they return. I wish I could go!”

Permalink | Posted by Alison Hudson on May 9, 2012 in the following categories: Leadership, Professional Training, Rocky Mountain

NOLS Pro featured in Businessweek

“Outdoor education, once largely confined to orientation at business schools, is making inroads at a growing number of MBA programs as schools look for more effective ways to teach students the dynamics of leadership and team-building. Many of them are turning to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS),” writes Alison Damast in a Bloomberg Businessweek article published today.

The article, with headline “MBAs Learning Leadership the Hard Way,” examines the trend of business schools across the nation incorporating outdoor education into programming, specifically with NOLS Professional Training.

A number of business schools and businesses have custom programs through NOLS Pro. David Anderson photo

NOLS has seen a three-fold increase in MBA programs since 2007, and the future looks bright, as conversations are ongoing with a number of renowned MBA programs. The school with the longest history with NOLS, Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, gives the experience and NOLS Pro rave reviews in the article:

“They’re in charge and they have all this responsibility in an environment in which they are not the experts,” Warton’s Director of Graduate Leadership Jeff Klein is quoted saying in the article. “Where we find NOLS to be incredibly skilled is the ability to allow students to lead and then to accept the consequences of success or failure.”

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on May 7, 2012 in the following categories: In The News, Leadership, On The Net, Professional Training

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