Erin Bohm on the Effects of Experiential Education

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In the U.S., most garden education programs are focused in urban settings where students don’t interact with natural processes on a daily basis. It's very easy for students in rural environments to get overlooked with the assumption that they already know how to participate in their land and food system. Erin Bohm, an experiential education curriculum developer, knows the importance of outdoor experiential education, especially in a place like Montezuma County where food production is a way of life.

Erin Bohm was hired in 2011 as one of Montezuma School to Farm Project’s (MSTFP) first educators for garden class. She continued on to become the education manager and an experiential education curriculum developer. Bohm is responsible for creating the outline for MSTFP’s garden curriculum, the Drought Resilience Education Manual, and the Nutritional Education Manual. She brought structure and consistency to the systems of how to teach successfully in an outdoor classroom.

Bohm believes that whether kids love, want to leave, or know nothing about the agricultural community they live in, it is important to “have programming that elicits their knowledge and shows them how it can follow them outside of the agricultural industry or enrich them as they stay in an agricultural environment.”

Bohm’s experience was founded in the backcountry where she lead trips and courses for about 15 years. Experiential education in the backcountry is vital to survival. A mistake or oversight, like losing a sock or damaging a tent, can quickly escalate to a life-threatening situation. The idea that children learn technical and social-emotional skills in the backcountry more quickly is supported by the fact that failure or laziness have real-time consequences. Giving children a sense of purpose and autonomy combined with the pressures of natural effects is what makes the outdoor learning environment so impactful.

The garden offers a parallel experience to a backcountry classroom. In the past, the success of food production was the difference between thriving or starving, and for many in the agricultural industry, food production is still economically linked with vitality. The human connection with food and our ability to grow, raise, and harvest was a value “held deeply in our human skill set, until recently,” says Bohm. Showing kids in a safe setting how the success and failures of food production can impact an individual, as well as a community is what initially drew Bohm to work with MSTFP.

According to Bohm, “the effective principle of experiential education is reflection... If you don't reflect, then you find that you make the same mistakes over and over again.” Simply having an outdoor or hands-on experience does not lead to excellence or wisdom, it is the reflection of those experiences that catalyzes growth and knowledge.  

When people come to recognize that their decisions and actions have immediate and important consequences, they realize their ability to make an impact. Bohm believes garden education nurture’s children’s observation skills, allowing them to see and participate in the patterns, underlying systems, processes, and cycles in the natural world. Learning and creating change is only possible “if we are deeply observing and learning each time we try something and remembering it the next time,” says Bohm. Showing a student how to stare at a plant or a habitat and just observe “is the first step in them becoming a scientist who really notices things” and it’s the first step in becoming a person who cares enough to make a change.

Check out this Food Tank article about how Erin Bohm designed her Drought Resilient Curriculum to better serve garden education in the Southwest.