An Outside Chance

An Outside Chance

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I want Maine kids to have those meaningful experiences, and to have the skills and the confidence to do stuff like this. It shouldn’t be exotic. It shouldn’t be something that only some people get to do.
In the spring of the year that Lauren Jacobs taught physical education at the K-8 Cave Hill School in rural Eastbrook, Maine, she took her eighth grade students canoeing on nearby Scammon Pond. The loons and ducks had returned and were sharing a bright and sunny day with the students. The goal was simply to get the kids out on the water. They learned a few basic skills and paddling techniques, but the exercise was designed to gain comfort and build experience while having fun and making memories. But Lauren was surprised by the kids’ reaction to the activity.

“I had numerous students tell me, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever been in a boat,’” says Lauren.

“They were middle schoolers and their school was literally across the street from a lake.” She was stunned. These were 13- and 14-year-old kids who had lived in Maine their entire lives.

There is a mountain of research and evidence that supports how beneficial outdoor time is for children. Students move more when they are outdoors. It improves physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It results in better behavior and increases focus in the classroom. There are physiological benefits: lower stress levels, lower blood pressure, and healthier heart rates.

Canoeing, biking, skiing, hiking, and the like are also healthy activities that can become lifelong passions, connecting the students with their environment and their community.

“This is why [outdoor education] is so important. I want Maine kids to  have those meaningful experiences, and to have the skills and the confidence to do stuff like this. It shouldn’t be exotic. It shouldn’t be something that only some people get to do.”

Why, then, hasn’t it become a requirement in schools at all grade levels? With challenges around access, funding, and the limitations of time and equipment, ensuring outdoor education for all Maine students can feel unattainable. But where others see obstacles, Lauren sees the opportunity to remove barriers.

Growing up on a lake in Winthrop, Maine, Lauren Jacobs spent time in the outdoors as far back as she can remember. Her family regularly went on recreational day trip adventures. They went paddling, biking, and skiing.
    • Lauren stands in front of the iconic Black Bear sculpture at her current institution, the University of Maine.

    • Lauren enjoys the on-campus mountain bike trails at UMaine during the summer.

    • Lauren in her element on her Junior Four Point trip in March of 2002.


At Gould, I saw the very best of what education could be, and the impact educators could have. It became clear to me that I was meant to be an educator, and I wanted to be the kind of educator and provide the kinds of educational experiences I had at Gould: building caring relationships with students and providing deeply meaningful experiential learning opportunities.

Discovering Her Passion

Lauren demonstrates proper classic Nordic skiing form for her Outdoor Leadership students at UMaine on campus trails in the Demeritt Forest.
Her outdoor life from age four through middle school was deeply rooted at Camp Kennebec, a classic Maine summer camp on Salmon Pond in North Belgrade. It was a formative experience. Inquisitive from the start, she spent her summers exploring every corner of the camp. It’s where she first went backpacking on overnight trips. She went canoe camping in the Belgrade Lakes. She climbed Mount Katahdin.

Her love for exploring the outdoors continued when she arrived in Bethel, Maine, in the fall of 1999 as a Gould ninth-grader.

“She was always outdoors, swimming in the lake and diving off the float. She started skiing at Sunday River when she was four years old,” remarked Lauren’s father, Charlie Jacobs ’66.

Charlie grew up on the Gould campus from 1958 until his graduation in 1966. He would later serve on the Gould Board of Trustees. Charlie’s father, Stephen Jacobs, taught advanced science, physics, and forestry at Gould. It was his forestry class that first cultivated and managed the forest we now know as Pine Hill, home to the Gould Nordic and Mountain Biking teams.

“I think Gould was in her DNA from the very beginning.” Charlie added.

He was right. She dove head first into New Student Orientation and continued to explore the outdoors throughout her high school years. She took advantage of trips into the woods on weekends, joined the rock climbing team, and thrived during Junior Four Point, Gould’s signature eight-day outdoor winter camping trip. As a senior, she would go on another orientation trip, this time as a student-leader, guiding the next generation of Gould students. She even went ice climbing with the fabled Bob Baribeau P’07, ’09, ’21.

With the peaks came the valleys. After struggling through three years as a competitive freestyle skier, Lauren decided it was time for a change and gave Nordic skiing a try. This was an important transition. She fell in love immediately. She loved the training, the racing, the roller skiing—all of it. She worked hard to develop her newfound passion and skied competitively for Bates College, no small task for a second-year “Nordie.”

Beyond Bates, Lauren continued to compete at a high level in Nordic and biathlon, joining the Green Racing Project in 2009, the year it was established at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, a notable training ground for post-collegiate athletes in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. It was here that Lauren had her first experience working with young athletes, coaching in the New England Bill Koch League, a youth ski program named for the United States’ first cross-country skiing medalist, and the largest program of its kind in the nation.

“We put on Bill Koch camps a few times each summer and I really enjoyed it. I loved getting to work with young people in programming that was longterm, not just a one-and-done,” she says. “I knew when it was time to leave Craftsbury; I wanted to go back to Maine [and] work in the community through outdoor sports and activities.”

Lauren landed at the Maine Winter Sports Center, now known as the Outdoor Sports Institute (OSI), a nonprofit organization that focuses on “making human-powered outdoor sports accessible, sustainable, and meaningful for everyone.” A perfect match.

Mike Smith, executive director at OSI, is to this day one of Lauren’s mentors. As a child, he grew up on a potato farm in Aroostook County. He graduated from UMaine and has guided adventures from the backcountry to sea kayaking on the coast. Together, much of the work they did at Maine Winter Sports Center helped to shape OSI into what it is today.

He recognized that Lauren’s vision for the future is essential to that work.

“In nonprofit work, it’s easy to focus on short-term impact and miss those long-term outcomes,” he says. “Lauren is an excellent critical thinker and she has the ability to stay focused on the long term impacts of this type of work.”

“That’s where my interest in outdoor activities and outdoor sports was a job for the first time,” Lauren says. “It’s where I built outdoor leadership skills, the skills to lead expeditions, and the skills to bring people into the backcountry.”

More importantly, it’s where she discovered her passion for teaching and also began to think about how she could take care of her place in the world, including her home state, on a deeper level.

“It’s also where I built my instructional skills, facilitation skills and [learned to] approach things from a community development standpoint. It’s one thing to put on a program, but what does it mean to make lasting change in the community? I became really interested in that.”

Lauren spent a lot of time driving around the state of Maine, delivering outdoor gear to rural schools while concurrently working towards her Master’s in Kinesiology (the study of the human body’s movement) and Physical Education at the University of Maine. She dropped off snowshoes and skis and distributed bikes and canoes. A few weeks later she’d have to return to re-collect. Still contemplating the idea of creating lasting change, one question lingered. What do you do once the access to the equipment is gone?

Opening the Door to More Possibilities

It turned out that initial access to the equipment and resources
opened the door to more possibilities. Once teachers and administrators saw the value to students first hand, they found
ways to make things happen.

“Schools would take it upon themselves to write grants and seek
donations to build trails next to the school and build outdoor
classrooms. Teachers would say to me, ‘we do it because the benefits
are so powerful that we put in the extra effort to make it happen.’”
She also found that when these programs were offered through physical education classes, health classes, or outdoor enrichments at school, they became available to everyone, not just a privileged few. “After-school activities and summer camps can be really powerful, but they inherently are limiting. Even when something’s offered for free, and you provide transportation, if it’s extracurricular there are barriers for students that will be insurmountable. I became really passionate about school-based outdoor activities. If this is what your PE class is doing, it’s accessible. It’s for everyone. We think of math as being a core curriculum component, and we think of English and Language Arts as being a core curriculum component. I would argue that time outside should be a core curriculum component.” Currently, Maine schools are required to offer physical education, but there are no requirements around frequency or length of time for classes.

After completing her Master’s degree at the University of Maine, Lauren wanted to find answers to these questions and deliver an outdoor experience with more consistency. She saw the crucial need for regular in-school outdoor programming. She took a position teaching physical education at the Cave Hill School, a school with an enrollment of just 77 students, in one of the most economically depressed areas of the state. The kind of place where a canoeing class can help students see opportunities and become a life-changing moment.
“Being there for a year really opened my eyes to the challenges, especially in small rural schools. There are challenges around funding and time. [There are] the challenges that students bring to the school each day; everything from food insecurity to parents with addiction problems. Actually working at a school, I saw the challenges firsthand. But I also saw a lot of possibilities for ways to improve the system, not just for Cave Hill, but for any public school.”

With this new perspective, Lauren accepted a position in the University of Maine’s School of Kinesiology, Physical Education, and Athletic Training, where she would have greater reach. She was charged with establishing a new program.

“I was hired to expand the outdoor offerings in our program. We have an Exercise Science major, and we prepare future physical education teachers, but we had very limited outdoor education opportunities. Since 2017, we’ve built a minor in Outdoor Leadership, as well as a concentration within our Exercise Science major.”

The Outdoor Leadership courses take advantage of Maine’s spectacular natural settings and teach graduates how to create opportunities for meaningful, high-quality, accessible, and inclusive outdoor programming.

As she prepares future outdoor leaders, she’s passionate about providing the best possible experience for her students. She still draws inspiration from what was modeled for her at Gould.

“At Gould, I saw the very best of what education could be and the
impact educators could have. I didn't know it at the time, but that
impacted my professional trajectory greatly,” she recounts. “It became clear to me that I was meant to be an educator, and I wanted to be the kind of educator and provide the kinds of educational experiences I had at Gould: building caring relationships with students and providing deeply meaningful experiential learning opportunities.”
My hope would be that every school would have the ability to find that thing that works for their community, and then have the resources to implement and sustain that thing.

An Impactful Teacher and Phenomenal Resource

Those learning opportunities lead to a deeper understanding for her students, who appreciate Lauren as an impactful teacher and phenomenal resource.

“Lauren’s job is to run an Outdoor Leadership program and facilitate that to undergrads, but what she really does is give students a purpose in that realm,” explains Mackenzie Connor. Mackenzie, also known as Mack, is a 2022 graduate of the University of Maine, who studied Ecology and Environmental Science with a minor in Outdoor Leadership and now coordinates the Maine Bound Adventure Center at the university. She hopes to become a science teacher in the future.

She talks glowingly about Lauren.

“It’s a lot of self-discovery, and reflection, and growth through challenge, and Lauren facilitates that in her teaching and everything that she does here. She gives students not only a purpose but also a safe place and a mentor that they can talk to.”

One of the ways she gives her students purpose is through those authentic interactions that inspired her earlier in her career. She talks about a recent paddling class that collaborated with fourth graders in East Millinocket—and what a powerful experience it was in both directions. Her undergraduate students got instructional facilitation practice, while the fourth graders got to hang out with UMaine students. The undergrads got a rare opportunity to teach, and the kids met role models who could potentially open up new pathways for them by removing the mystique around paddling and giving them the confidence to take on more challenges themselves.

Lauren beams while recounting the memory.

“Who knows what kind of light bulbs might go off? Even the tiniest little sparks have the potential to raise aspirations for the kids.”

That topic of accessibility and inclusion is always just under the surface for Lauren, it’s a thread that weaves its way throughout all of her teaching.

She gives an example from a course she teaches called “Ethics and Social Justice in Outdoor Leadership” where students really dive into the issues around inclusion, equity, and access in outdoor learning.

“We talk about how to dress to be comfortable outdoors. We can’t effectively facilitate programming if we’re freezing and shivering. But then we talk about showing up to facilitate a program with name-brand gear and fancy clothes versus showing up with your sweater from Goodwill and your wool hat and your leather mittens that you got at the hardware store. What does that look like to your potential participants? 
There is a perceived barrier that you need fancy gear to do these things. So as instructors, are we upholding that perception, or are we trying to break it down?”

It’s a small example, but Lauren is always giving her students tools for the toolbox of skills and ideas that they can utilize in their work. That sentiment resonated with Mackenzie as well.

“The Ethics class shaped my entire framework and life goals. My biggest issue with outdoor education is that it’s not accessible to all people. I want to help change that.”

Mack points to a program that is a potential model for all Maine high schools. It’s a collaboration between SAD #44 in Bethel, Maine, the University of Maine, and the 4H Camp & Learning Center in Bryant Pond directed by current Gould parent Ryder Scott P’24,’27, called Telstar Freshman Academy (TFA).

“That is why I love programs like TFA. All students, no matter what their sociological background is, are able to be included in outdoor ed. I really latched on to that. That’s exactly what I want to facilitate.”

Lauren admits that there’s no silver bullet or simple answer for how to get Maine students outside more often. The solution will come from doing a lot of little things. A lot of hard work and consistency. Demonstrating the benefit to educators. But the huge scope of this work doesn’t prevent her from dreaming about the tipping point. She can imagine what the future could hold.

“If I could wave a magic wand, my wish would be for every school to find the way that works best for them to get kids outside during the school day. That really does look different at different schools. Everyone would find the way to do that and have the resources needed. For some schools, it’s through PE, for some schools it’s for their littles, like K–2 having a lot of outdoor learning time. It might be a mix of lots of different things, but my hope would be that every school would have the ability to find that thing that works for their community and then have the resources to implement and sustain that thing.”

Framed in this way, it doesn’t sound so insurmountable. With Lauren removing the barriers where she can, fostering future leaders, and impacting policy at the state level, there is a bright future in the great outdoors on the horizon for all Maine students.
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