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Researching Awe and the Outdoors


Sierra Club Outdoors, the University of California Berkeley’s Psychology Department, and the Greater Good Science Center are teaming up on a research project to measure the physical and mental benefits that teenagers enjoy as a result of their participation in a series of six ICO rafting trips. The research is investigating the link between awe experienced when out in nature and good health and resilience.

Specifically, the project’s benefits include: scientific methods to document the positive outcomes of outdoor programs; engaging teenagers in hands-on psychological research; and producing data on the health and wellness benefits of being outdoors. Participants will complete questionnaires before and after the trip, provide saliva samples to measure hormones and immune functions, keep a trip diary, and collect video and photos during the trips—all to measure, observe, and collect data on the physical and emotional state of the teens on these trips.

The first rafting trip of the research series occurred in late June on the south fork of the American River with approximately 25 students from Oakland High School’s Environmental Science Academy. The participants were accompanied by environmental science teacher Kevin Jordan, ten SF Bay Rafting guides, Craig Anderson, and UC Berkeley research project manager and his graduate student assistants, as well as Sierra magazine writer Jake Abramson and a Sierra free-lance photographer who documented the trip. Amidst all the chaos of gear, participants, and extra people, the trip and research component went off without a hitch. The simple pre- and post- trip questionnaires and journal reflections provided an excellent way to get the young people focused and reflect on their outdoor experience. And having the college graduate students interact with these college-bound high school students proved a plus for everyone. Craig Anderson came away saying that this first trip experience exceeded his expectations on participant reactions and data collection; ICO rafting leaders realized the importance of adding a journal exercise and including some environmental science on their trips to truly enhance the fun. We hope having some science behind what we intuitively know is true—that being outdoors is a positive value for both the body and mind—will help raise awareness and encourage support for our outdoor programming.

We plan on taking the information we learn from this first pilot research program and implementing a three year longitiduinal research project in 2015 that will work with youth as well as veterans and service members to determine the benefit of what the outdoors does for all of us. For more information get in touch with stacy.bare@sierraclub.org 

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