An Evaluation of The Youth Opportunities Program And The A Mountain Classroom Program

Duffin, Michael et al.

Executive summary

The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) encourages people to get outside to enjoy and appreciate the natural world as the basis for successful conservation and stewardship of the outdoors. AMC youth education programs in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New Jersey collectively reach more than 25,000 children a year.  

This evaluation focused on two AMC education programs, the Youth Opportunities Program (YOP), and the A Mountain Classroom Program (AMCR). YOP offers trainings and services that support youth workers to take the youth they work with on outdoor adventure trips. YOP services, such as use of equipment and trip planning advice, help to make the trips more accessible. AMCR offers one to five day environmental educational programs to students in fifth to twelfth grade. The students and their classroom teachers are guided by AMC staff through learning experiences in the mountains of New Hampshire. These two programs have distinct program delivery models, and somewhat distinct program goals. Therefore, they were investigated separately, and this Summary Report presents the results in separate sections.

This was the first systematic program evaluation of YOP or AMCR in nearly a decade. The evaluation focused only on selected elements from each program. The findings in this report represent initial, base-line observations for formative purposes, and should not be taken as comprehensive, summative judgments of YOP or AMCR as a whole.

Findings and Discussion

Below are summaries of the main themes identified for each program, preceded by themes found in a review of relevant academic literature, and followed by a summary of overall conclusions. In addition to the narrative provided in the main body of this Summary Report, a set of more detailed findings was provided to AMC staff in the form of an Appendices document for internal staff use.

Literature Review

Overall, findings from the literature were consistently affirming of the empirical data collected for YOP and AMCR. The review was organized around the following categories:

  • Urban-minority youth and environmental/outdoor education programs;
  • Environmental and outdoor education designed for white middle class youth;
  • Impact of residential environmental and outdoor education on youth;
  • Effective residential environmental and outdoor education programs;
  • Training and support of youth workers; and
  • The development of environmentally responsible behavior.

Additionally, several recommendations were gleaned from the academic literature. These are listed in the main body of this report.

Youth Opportunities Program

Overall, YOP youth workers reported that both they and the youth with whom they work benefited from the YOP program, and best practices reported by youth workers were consistent with the skills emphasized in YOP trainings. Key supporting themes included:

  • The YOP program was implemented as intended by the youth workers;
  • YOP positively impacted youth workers, both personally and professionally;
  • Use of YOP equipment was key to taking youth on outdoor adventure trips;
  • YOP positively impacted youth prosocial behavior, and introduced youth to the outdoors;
  • Youth enjoyed the outdoor trips and were grateful to YOP;
  • YOP participants appreciated the openness and skill of the AMC staff; and
  • Reflections on cultural competence in YOP.
     

Recommendations discussed for YOP include:

  • Continue striving to increase the cultural competence of YOP (perhaps including increased outreach to youth agencies, additional trainings in and around Boston, and opportunities for "leaders-in-training"); and
  • Continue improving the YOP gear lending services (perhaps including additional locations for equipment, and opportunities for extended borrowing periods).
     

A Mountain Classroom

Overall, this evaluation found ample and clear evidence that AMCR provided positive, socially enriching experiences that increased the appreciation for and familiarity with the outdoors for urban and rural youth and the adults who work with them. The following themes emerged in support of this overall finding:

  • AMCR built group cohesion and increased prosocial behavior for students;
  • AMCR built positive student-teacher relationships;
  • "Readiness" influenced the degree to which AMCR impacts educator practice;
  • AMCR increased student awareness of and appreciation for the natural world; and
  • Reflections on cultural competence in AMCR.
     

Recommendations discussed for AMCR include:

  • Target program offerings more specifically to the "readiness" of participants (perhaps including more pre-trip activities, mentoring/partnering programs, and more repeat experiences); and
  • Continue striving to increase the cultural competence of AMCR (perhaps including focused recruitment of minority interns and educators, and incentives for minority youth and family use of AMC resources).
     

Conclusion

This was a baseline, primarily formative evaluation of two distinct programs. There are some reflections and common threads, however, which link the evaluation of YOP and AMCR. Three themes common to the findings from both YOP and AMCR include:

  • Participants were overwhelmingly positive about both programs;
  • Strongest youth outcomes included increased prosocial behaviors and appreciation of the outdoors; and
  • Cultural background affects participant experiences.
     

Taken together, these three themes seem to suggest a new twist on how to potentially think about the overall program delivery strategy for both YOP and AMCR. In short:

The concept of "readiness" could become a major organizing frame for future program development.

It could be that it is an appropriate and strategically sufficient position for YOP and AMCR to continue to serve as successful "gateway" programs that specialize in positive experiences that increase awareness of and comfort in the outdoors. This was found to be an exemplary strength of both programs and is probably the highest leverage way to reach the greatest number of participants. Alternatively, either one or both programs could add or augment existing program offerings aimed at audiences with higher levels of readiness for environmentally-oriented behavior change. This might increase the range of types of participants served and allow for deeper outcomes for some participants, though perhaps in lieu of serving greater numbers of participants. This evaluation provided sufficient data to pose but not answer this strategic choice.

Pedagogical Area
  • outdoor education, experiential education
Subject Area
  • physical education, outdoor recreation
Delivery Area
  • out of school time/after school
  • professional development
Outcome Area
  • environmental knowledge, attitude and awareness
  • stewardship behavior
  • environmental change
Participant Area
  • program
Age Area
  • elementary (6-11 years old)
  • middle school (12-14 years old)