College Transition - A Natural Approach

Create a supportive community for college-bound students built around a shared experience in our nation's natural areas.

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Ready for Nature Mode? (Updated 4/26/16)

Happy College Signing Day! I honor of the First Ladies initiative, I've prepared a "starter kit" for any school that is interested in trying out Nature Mode, but not sure how to start. Feel free to check out this guide and send any questions you may have my way. 

Click HERE for link to Starter Kit

FaceBook Hackathon: From the White House to Silicon Valley (Updates 4/8/2016)

Yesterday night there was a hackathon held at Facebook Headquarters in Menlo Park, CA where educators, students, and professionals all came together to prototype five of the ideas presented to the White House a few weeks back. Our idea was one of them, and during the two-hour event we were able to get some great feedback on how to take the idea and package it so that schools and students could execute and benefit from it. 

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(our awesome team hard at work)*

We divided ourselves into five teams, each one tasked with building out solutions to these pivitol design questions;

1) Pre-Trip Connecting: How do we get students signed up for the trip? How do we connect them to build their community before they even depart? 

2) Pre-Trip Marketing: How do we articulate the benefits of this idea to both the school and the students? 

3) Trip Planning: How should schools/students plan their excursion to make it as meaningful and formative a possible? 

4) Trip Nature Mode: What functionality should be included in our technology so that it supports goals of the excursion? 

5) Post-Trip Connections: How do we continue to connect students with their newly-formed community. 

We came up with an outstanding amount of work and further evolved the idea in many ways. Here's the short list of what we came up with;

- Students who are accepted to school are sent a survey which helps the school find out about their interests, generates a profile for them within Nature Mode and begins connecting them with their community. 

- It is important to get the school on board with the benefits, but even more important to get students to see the benefits so they participate. This could be done by getting the university to give housing or registration priorities to participants, or articulating the benefits of this as a "kick-off" event to their year and a chance to meet other students. 

- One of the people who was in out design group was a former employee at the University of Arizona who worked on student retention. She said it costs much more to find a new student than to keep a per-exsiitng one, a fact that needs to be articulated to universities as a reason to participate. 

- The idea of having pre-planned and self-planned trip options was floated as well. Some students may want to create their own adventure and invite people along on it. University clubs or student organizations may also want to sponsor trips as a way to introduce themselves to new students.     

- App functionality that was explored included leveling features on the phone (levels of disconnection like no notifications, email notifications only, no messaging notifications, etc) 

- Student feedback was positive as many students said the idea of going to a college where they know nobody was a major source of anxiety and that a trip like this where they were essentially guaranteed to meet like-minded people was a major plus. 

*Sidenote - our team was the only team to be made up of 50% students, all of whom were amazing with their design thinking and feedback. We even let one of them present our work to the entire group!

The entire event was great, and as an added bonus, I got to meet one of my awesome coaches in person! 

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The process continues. . . 

Please check out our pitch video for more about our version of this idea;

And you thought we were all done . . . (Updated 4/6/2016)

So first off, it's very awesome that we've been selected as a finalist out of this field of amazing ideas. It says something that an idea centered around disconnecting and going back to nature has been highlighted and has gained so much traction. But the work does not end here! 

In anticipation of the upcoming April 26th signing day we are starting to construct a "How To" manual of sorts that can be taken by school interested in our idea and used to plan their first excursion. It will have sample outlines for the week, a list of schools with developed programs that can be contacted, and all sorts of resources for making the most of a pre-college outdoor trip. More to come. 

19 Hours Left in SELECT Phase (updates 3/30/2016)

...and here are some further thoughts I had during my walk to mark this moment. I'm still seeing new comments pop up both here and from Twitter about the impact that natural experiences have had on people and the value that these types of authentic moment have had on them as people. I am still surprised at the amount of support this idea of "disconnecting" with nature is getting, and on social media no less, but if the works of authors like Louv and Muir have taught us nothing else, they have taught that there is a need for people to feel connected, not only to others, but to nature. The fact that TECHNOLOGY of all things can facilitate those authentic connections has been one of the biggest "ah-ha" moments for me on this journey, and I am looking forward to whatever the next step is.

Leave it to the Canadians (UPDATED 3/28/2016) 

A friend of mine from Montreal send me a study that backs up much of what we've been saying in these conversations regarding the benefits of a natural setting. Give it a read if you're interested;

I can also recommend an amazing book by Richard Louv called Last Child in the Woods. Although much of the focus is on the importance of nature in the development of a child, it also discusses the importance of introducing young adults to nature as a way of fostering environmental stewardship. 

Please leave your thoughts in the comment section and also pass this idea on as we approach the end of this phase of the design challenge. 

The Proven Process (UPDATED 3/27/2016)

I was recently contacted by a former co-worker who, as luck would have it, had a job actually running a pre-college orientation trip very similar to the one we're proposing in our idea. This is great anecdotal data that supports what we're proposing. The post she send through FACEBOOK (how perfect?) is below;  

"I'm sure you have plenty of ideas for your nature mode, but I just wanted to let you know that that was basically my old job! I helped run the pre-orientation program at Hopkins for 3 summers while I was there. It was a week of outdoor adventure for incoming freshman just before school started and I can tell you that the effects and friendships were amazing. If you ever want to compare how a similar program worked, I can definitely hook you up with some resources! I also could hook you up with other instructors from other schools. Sounds like you have a great thing rolling here."

3/26/2016 - Further Evidence For Your Consideration

As we wait for this phase of the design challenge to end, I thought i'd begin looking for ways to further refine and revise my original idea as well as for more information about the benefits of outdoor excursions as a way of preparing students for school.

I was both excited and please to find a 2011 article for U.S. News about how many schools across the country, OVER 200 in fact, already have this kind of experience open to their incoming students! Some of them members of my design team mentioned that they had the opportunity to participate in outings prior to going to college, but I had no idea it was so widespread already. 

Here is the full article if you'd like to read how schools across our nation already use the outdoors to engage, prepare, and support their students;

3/25/2016 @ 7:41am (Pacific Time) - WE REACHED 1,000 views!!!

Please take a look at our pitch video and help us get to the next round by voting on our idea and sharing your feedback! 

Reflection - Look back at where we started (UPDATE 3/25/16)

Recently I was asked to fill out a reflection on where the original inspiration for the idea came from and thought I'd post that inspiration here as well;

I have to credit the original inspiration for my idea to my years spent working at summer camp. When I first began looking into the best way to help create supportive communities for college-bound students, I thought back to the bonds formed between the campers and staff at the various overnight camps I worked at. Despite only being together for a week, and sometimes being thousands of miles apart for the entire year, the bounds of authentic friendship formed in the natural environment were unbelievably strong and supportive. During time of stress or tribulation, campers would reach out to their camp community for support sometimes before their own families or immediate friends.

It is for this reason I decided that the “camp out” model, augmented with the smart use of technology, would have a similar effect for students entering their first year of college. Forming a strong community before they attended their first class or slogged through their first reading assignment would put them on the sure footing they needed to successfully thrive their first year, regardless of what challenges and stresses they encounter.

Our Message is Spreading! (UPDATE 3/24/16)

In the last 8 hours the number of views and comments on our idea has increased by 30%! Wow! I'm very excited by the receptiveness to this idea and hope that more people will read this so that we can move it to the next phase. Please consider sharing this with like-minded friends and peers. We'd love to keep this idea spreading! Feel free to link to this page!

The Idea is STILL Evolving (UPDATE 3/21/16)

With the help of my amazing coaches, partners, and teammates we've taken the original idea and wire-framed a tool that will help students both connect to nature and disconnect to the distractions around them. Introducing NATURE MODE!

Here's a slide deck all about our proposed tool and how it melds with our original vision


The Idea Is Evolving (UPDATE 3/17/16)

Over the last few weeks what started as a simple way to help college-bound students create relationships while connecting them to our nation's public lands has expanded exponentially. Thanks to the efforts of my amazing Teachers Guild Coach Lisa and my Facebook partner Dina the project has improved by leaps and bounds.

Pitch: 20-30% of college Freshmen drop-out of college before they begin their second year due to in large part to isolation. Less and less of our nation's future leaders see the value of experiences in the natural world. What if it was possible to address all of these issues with one solution? The key - fighting isolation with isolation.  

Overview: Welcome to Nature Mode

Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that retention is directly related to isolation. Students who do not have a chance to develop a strong support structure during the first few months of college are in danger of becoming one of the 20-30% of college students who drop out of college every year.

To address this alarming trend, students should be given the ability to form authentic relationships with both their fellow students and their university early on as well as the ability to revisit and rely supports during time of high stress, such as midterms or finals. To this end, our idea is to create 3-5 day excursions for new students away from the distractions of our connected world as a way of helping them to form their own new and supportive community. These trips can be open to all students or can target specific groups, such as first generation or first in their family students who are most vulnerable to dropping out.

These excursions can be customized to meet the goals and mission statement of the university and its students. The can consist of social activities, teambuilding challenges, opportunities to meet the faculty, and even a chance for orientation from the university itself. The gain for students will be coming away from the trip with a newly formed support system and social connections while the university addresses issues around retention.

As a way of ensuring that students are able to engage fully in the program and are free of distractions, these excursions will be natural in setting such as a state reserve, wilderness, or national park. This serves three important purposes; it gives students a chance to remove themselves from the manic pace of pre-college life, it provides an opportunity for students to solidify their new friendships and friend circles by overcoming challenges or stepping out of their “comfort zone”, and it creates a connection between themselves and nature in such a way as to possible create the next generation of stewards for our country’s public lands.  

But even in this “disconnected” environment, leveraging technology smartly can enhance the experience. Although cellular service may not be available, by connecting to Facebook’s new “Nature Mode” setting designed specifically for this program, participants will be able to catalog their entire experience. They can still document their excursion with video, photos, and posts, all of which will be queued up so that when they finally “reconnect” they’ll have a complete timeline ready to share and look back on. The potential for “Nature Mode” as a tool for reconnection could also allow for reminders to pop up during specific times on a school’s academic calendar, events and reunions throughout the year, and perhaps it could even be activated by participants during times of stress as a way of seeking help from their friends or solace from their busy world.

This slide deck provides a narrative which better describes this proposal ---> CLICK HERE           

Potential Value:

Value for the University

An actionable way to meet several important goals that universities struggle with. Addresses a primary causes of college drop-outs. Creates a mechanism for supporting first in family students and first generation students. Gives universities uninterrupted access to their new students. Creates time for orientation. Creates opportunities to connect students to faculty and alumni to create mentors for students who don’t have role models. Showcases the college and provides opportunities for advertising. Utilizes resources that universities already have at their disposal (staff, transportation, access to public lands, etc)

Value for Students

Creates supportive communities to students who may be leaving the only support structures they have ever had. Allow students to “ease in” to college life gradually over the course of the excursion. Creates opportunities for getting involved with in-campus activities in the future. Connects students more authentically with their university. Students who sign up could potentially be granted early registration as a way to schedule them in with their new social groups. Introduces them to the importance and value of disconnecting during times of stress.

Greater Value

Connects future leaders to our natural world and public lands, fostering a new generation of environmental stewards. Potential to better connect latinos, african-americans with our nation's parks and preserves. Reverses trends relating to Millennials and their lack of connection to the natural world. Fits in with Go Parks initiative, giving it a wider and more diverse audience. Creates partnerships between universities and the public lands in their communities.

More to come soon, but please comment if you get a chance! Would love to hear what you think and ways to improve and furthur evolve this idea!

Original Post

"Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world" - John Muir

This may be a strange thing for an educational technologist to advocate, but anyone who truly understands the benefits of living in a connected world should also recognize the value inherent in disconnecting. As a teacher and former camp director, I know first-hand how communities formed away from the modern world stay tight, and how they become an essential support system even when the members are thousands of miles apart. 

The transition from high school to college is very challenging, and in our 24/7 world, the stress is only amplified. Rarely during this period do students get a chance to slow down and form meaningful, face-to-face relationships during this new and formative chapter in their lives.

With the idea of forming authentic relationships in mind, I would like to see every students who transitions to college have the opportunity to be part of a program that seeks to create connections between students, their new school community, and the natural world. Much more than a simple retreat, it would be an opportunity to combine service, recreation, and community away from distractions and stressors of and world. This would allow colleges an uninterrupted opportunity to foster good relationships and set a positive, supportive tone for the transition. The bonds formed during this time would help provide an additional layer of support as student begin creating these new relationships. 

Some people ask why outside? Couldn't the same goals be achieved indoors in a more accessible location? On the surface this seems plausible, but anyone familiar with the works of thinkers like Richard Louv understand that connections formed in a natural setting are much deeper and longer lasting. Additionally, as less and less of our young people have formative relationships with natural spaces like our National Parks, ultimately less and less college-educated citizens will become stewards of our planet, and all of us will suffer. 

With this year being the 100th birthday of the National Park service, it is as good a time as any to think more deeply about how we can use America's Best Idea to facilitate growth, community, and promote equity for all out college-bound youth. 

Have a doc or slides that you're collaborating in? Link it here.

Would Love To Have People Chime In With Their Ideas Or Support! -


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kenneth Baker

Hey James, I must say this started kit is such a great piece of contribution. I am Kenneth Baker, an associate career counselor at California Creek University. We are a team of career counselor and researchers who are always seeking to connect with people who talk about modern day approaches towards better education.


Photo of James Fester

Hello Kenneth, Thank you for the comments regarding the starter kit that was developed as a result of this project. I am always interested in connecting with people looking to reform education and make it work better for students. What can you tell me about California Creek U? I'm interested in hearing about what online schools do to help students connect with each other? Any interest in sponsoring regional activities like this? I worked with an online school in the past who set up weekend socials for their students and thought it was a cool idea that could be replicated?

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