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Summer school program uses nature as classroom

'It’s not just like you gotta sit in a classroom all day listening to a teacher talk.'

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Courtney Antone gives students feedback on their work
Courtney Antone gives students feedback on their work on July 16, 2019, in Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis.
Simone Cazares | MPR News

While being in summer school might mean staying inside and working on assignments for some students, a group of Minneapolis high school students got to do something a little different this year.

Through a joint program between Minneapolis Public Schools and Wilderness Inquiry called Adventures in the City students got the chance to make up some of the credits they needed while exploring local parks, lakes and rivers.

Alexis Luna was one of those students. Reflecting on his time in the program, the incoming sophomore at Edison High School said he wouldn’t consider himself an outdoors person, but he has enjoyed being in the program where he’s gotten the chance to explore more of the outdoors and learn new skills.

Alexis Luna
Alexis Luna stands for a photo in Minnehaha Park on July 16.
Simone Cazares | MPR News

“Wilderness Inquiry, they make learning fun,” he said. “It’s not just like you gotta sit in a classroom all day listening to a teacher talk. You get to go outside, you get to have fun and you earn credits at the same time.”

Adventures in the City is just one of the many programs run by Wilderness Inquiry, a nonprofit formed in the 1970s to make the outdoors more accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. It all started after a skeptical Minnesota senator doubted that women, children and people with disabilities could explore the outdoors on their own. His comments inspired founder Greg Lais to take a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area with people with disabilities.

Lais never looked back.

“I never thought that I would keep doing this 41 years later, but it was such a powerful experience for me and for everyone on the trip,” Lais said. “It really was a transformative thing and it changed our world view.”

Now Wilderness Inquiry has taken more than 500,000 people on outdoor adventures — from he Boundary Waters to Yellowstone National Park and even other countries around the world.

But much of its work is done locally, too.

“I think of us as a kind of a cabin culture of going up north, but for a lot of new Minnesotans, for a lot of people who are here now, they didn’t get that or they’re not exposed to that,” Lais said. “What we need to do is figure out how do we meet them where they’re at and engage them in the wonderful outdoor resources of Minnesota.”

Courtney Antone is a Minneapolis high-school English teacher who also works as a trip director and outdoor leader for Wilderness Inquiry. She’s led the Adventures in the City program this summer. Some of the students, she said, aren’t used to spending a lot of time outdoors.

Courtney Antone leads a discussion with students
Courtney Antone leads a discussion with students in Minnehaha Park.
Simone Cazares | MPR News

“Every year the same thing happens,” Antone said. “On the first day you can tell they’re not very excited to be in summer school.”

But once students realize it is hands-on learning and experiential and the activities are connected to each other, their attitudes shift: “Even in the first day you just see facial expressions and the attitude of every student just brightens up.”

It’s reactions like those that Lais hopes for on all Wilderness Inquiry trips. And he hopes they can reach more people like Luna for years to come.

“They go out there, they love it and then they want to come back,” he said. “And what ends up happening is the kids then want to have jobs in the outdoors and so they come back and say. ‘Hey, how do I get a job as a national park ranger’ or ‘How do I get a job working for Wilderness Inquiry’ which is fabulous and what we want kids to do.”

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Students play a game of football
Students play a game of football on July 16 in Minnehaha Park.
Simone Cazares | MPR News

Wilderness Inquiry offers a wide variety of trips.

Many take place in state and national parks around the country — some are to different countries.

Wilderness Inquiry’s goal is to make the outdoors more accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. While there is a cost to some programs, many are free and there is a financial aid process for those who qualify.


Looking for more news from the outdoors? Check out our full coverage here and download our Outside in MN app where you'll find guides, outdoor events near you and weather updates. Get it on Apple or Android stores.