WilSkills History

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The Founding Fathers

WilSkills came to be in the fall of 1974 when graduate student Kimball McKee approached Vanderbilt administrators with the idea of creating a Wilderness Skills Course based on the example of the Outward Bound Schools. A Housing Director, Robert Warren, started publicizing and recruiting instructors while McKee began to compile a budget and contacted University Provost Nicholas Hobbs in order to secure funds for the course.

By January of 1975, several professors around the Vanderbilt campus, from departments ranging from Geology, Philosophy, and Sociology to Mathematics and Nephrology, came together along with students Skip Yates, Brewster Harrington, and David Russell to act as the first instructors of the course. Hobbs, while not directly involved, continued to encourage the group to seek funds suggesting they apply for funding from the Ford Foundation’s Venture Fund grant. Though the request was refused, the group was not dissuaded and in May of 1975, $3500 from the Provost’s Contingency Fund were credited to the “Outdoor Education Program.”

The Beginning

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The Vanderbilt Outdoor Education Program (VOEP) was created to administer the Wilderness Skills Course, an interdisciplinary course established in the physical education department. The Wilderness Skills Course was designed to integrate study in the academic disciplines — geology, biology, zoology, chemistry, psychology, humanities, and the social sciences — with interpretation of and physical experience in the natural world. The course utilized both the classroom and the natural environment, combining lectures, films, and discussions with field trips into the southern Appalachian mountains.

The lectures were presented by members of the Vanderbilt faculty, personnel from the Tennessee Department of Conservation, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Sierra Club, National Speleological Society, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, American Red Cross, and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association. They covered topics such as basic first aid, weather and climate, hydrology, caving, TVA, basic survival skills, the geology of the southern Appalachians, endangered species, the politics of wilderness preservation, and parks and pocket wildernesses in Tennessee.

The field trips were conducted under the supervision of faculty and student instructors. These trips were designed to test the skills demonstrated to the students during the lectures. For instance, students would learn to identify poisonous plants and how to use edible plants in cooking; they would learn about rock formations, stream processes, and the stages of mountain building and deterioration, and the interrelationship of soil, climate, and vegetation. The field trips were primarily designed to teach students the basic techniques of backpacking, white water canoeing, caving, and rock climbing.

As man is not only an explorer, but the product of the natural world, students were taught the proper methods of coexistence with the environment without harmfully altering it. Field trips placed students in situations in which, in effect, they are compelled to create their own communities, tentative and primitive, but perforce cohesive. Students would have to come to terms with their surroundings, establish rules of conduct, determine priorities, and ultimately, assume responsibility for the failure or success of their activities.

Our Philosophy

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The primary goals of VOEP were not only to make student more aware of the complex interrelationships between the natural sciences and the application of their techniques to questions in the natural world, but were also to provide students with basic skills for wilderness survival. The program was designed to do this by putting students in situations in which they would experience nature on its own terms, develop self-discipline, and participate in the formation of functioning communal relationships.

VOEP assumed that the primary aim of education was to challenge people with value forming experiences, to create within them curiosity, tenacity in pursuit of goals, capacity for self-denial, and compassion for others. Philosophically, the program assumes that people develop a greater reverence for life having experienced it in real and dramatic terms; that from such experiences they learn self-respect; that from self-respect flows compassion; and that compassion will be revealed in service to their fellow man.
Operationally, the program assumed that people have greater physical and mental stamina than they think they have; that small heterogeneous groups are capable of surmounting significant mental and physical challenges; that more is learned by solving problems through experience than by memorizing methodologies and facts; that stress and shared adventure are significant catalysts of learning experiences; and that short, intensive encounters with problems and the attempts to resolve them can have a long-term impact upon one’s life.