JRA’s Leadership Academy: ‘Experiential Learning’ on the River

April 23, 2015 · 2 minute read
JRA’s Leadership Academy: ‘Experiential Learning’ on the River
Students walk to the canoe launch on Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.

Students walk to the canoe launch on Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.

Experiential. Dynamic. Impact oriented. These are not words I would have used to describe my high school Environmental Studies classes (all apologies to Mrs. Southall), but that was long, long ago. Today’s students don’t just require, they demand the opportunity to be engaged, to be drawn into the experience of learning. They need to get their hands dirty, get their feet wet. And it’s that demand that has pushed young, creative educators to look beyond the borders and constructs of textbooks and yes, even SOL tests, to seek opportunities for these hungry students.

Enter the James River Association, the 38 year old environmental group focused solely on protecting the James. In 2011, the James River Association opened the James River Ecology School, a one of a kind resource that enables students from across the state to have a deeper connection and understanding of their river. Within two years, the school was at full capacity and teachers and students alike were excited at this new vision of a classroom. Soon the question of “what’s next?” arose. If the demand for substantive outdoor learning is this high, how can we push the boundaries of environmental education even further?

The bunkhouse (left) and the Menenak Discovery Center (middle), part of the JRA's Ecology School. Credit: JRA

The bunkhouse (left) and the Menenak Discovery Center (middle), part of the JRA’s Ecology School. Credit: JRA

So, what’s next is the James River Leadership Academy, a hands on, project based program for rising 10th and 11th graders that begins on Presquile National Wildlife Refuge and ends wherever these incredible students focus their efforts.

If you’re thinking this is a two dimensional sleep-away camp with fish hooks and mosquito repellent, think again. The James River Leadership Academy is designed to begin with a week on Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, 1,300 acres complete with the solar-powered Menenak Discovery Center, a low impact, highly energy-efficient bunkhouse, and a 500-foot-long boardwalk and canoe launch. Okay, so there will actually be mosquito repellent. And fishing. And canoeing. And team building, self-actualization and a profound understanding of the daily challenges facing our river. From here students will design their own action projects to implement within their community to put their new skills into practice.

Over the next few months the students will reconnect to share their projects and continue developing the leadership skills it takes to see those projects through. The culmination of the year-long program is the Gerald P. McCarthy Environmental Youth Symposium which will give students the opportunity to present their experiences and ideas, helping them build momentum around their action projects.

What the James River Leadership Academy strives for is impact. Regardless of what career path these students choose, they will carry with them a relationship and understanding of their natural world. Their future impact will be seen and felt in communities throughout the watershed. As Bill Street, James River Association CEO proudly shares, “the James River Leadership Academy is designed to engage, inspire and provide youth with the resources necessary to become the next generation of environmental leaders.”

Leadership begins right here, right now.