WSU News

Students aim high, tailor ropes course to teachers

PULLMAN, Wash. – Paul Mencke isn’t crazy about heights. But the professor gamely went 32 feet off the ground on a grown-up jungle gym, pleased that a student took the initiative to get his class of future teachers into a challenge (ropes) course at Washington State University.
Recalling her professor’s wide-eyed reaction to joining his students two stories up, Mackenzi Borja said that learning to appreciate one another’s vulnerabilities is one benefit of learning by doing – or, as it’s known to educators, experiential learning.
Borja suggested that she and her undergraduate classmates take the course during fall semester. She worked with Tamara Crooks, a WSU College of Education graduate student and University Recreation (UREC) employee, to tailor the leadership course to teachers. Both students are pleased that their effort paves the way for other College of Education students to participate.
“There’s a lot more to the challenge course than I expected. It’s intimidating and exciting,” said Borja.
UREC’s Challenge Program includes various courses that can be tailored to participants’ needs. Within each course is an indoor workshop as well as an outdoor experience on the high elements, or ropes, course.
Most challenge courses are designed for business leaders, with employee motivation in mind, said Crooks.
“With the future educators we focused on motivating students,” she said. “We gave them the platinum rule: I’ll treat you how you want to be treated. I’ll ask ‘How do you want to receive instruction?’ I won’t assume I know what’s best for you.”
‘Learning through our bodies’
Such lessons were part of a two-hour workshop followed by an hour on the high elements obstacle course outside the WSU Student Recreation Center. The course requires participants to wear safety harnesses.
“You know you are safe but that’s beyond the point. It’s so unknown what it’s going to feel like if you fall,” said College of Education faculty member Francene Watson, who also took part. “How often do most of us venture into unknown territory and really learn something new through our bodies?”
Watson and Mencke, both clinical assistant professors, agreed to devote time from their back-to-back fall semester classes for the course. Participation was optional, but all 23 students signed up. The Department of Teaching and Learning provided financial support.
“It was amazing,” said Watson. “This is a close-knit group of students, and Mackenzi thought it would be powerful for all of us to take part. She was spot-on. The students showed an incredible amount of support for each other.”
Mencke and Watson especially liked the way the challenge course fostered teamwork and encouraged education students to get out of their comfort zone. The two faculty members expect future teacher education students will be interested in taking it and are looking for additional ways to build teaching skills outside traditional classroom settings.
“We want students to understand that there are different educational philosophies, different ways of learning,” said Mencke.
On track to teaching careers
Borja, a senior from Spokane, worked last summer at SOAR, a Wyoming adventure camp for kids with learning disabilities. She slept in a tent and “showered every two weeks or so.”
The job stoked not only her love of the outdoors, but her interest in experiential learning.
“The camp’s approach was, ‘We’re not trying to fix you; we’re trying to help you deal with what’s going on in your lives,’ ” said Borja. “It was a real eye-opening experience for me.”
She is earning an English degree and will do her student teaching next year. Along with earning her teaching certificate, she hopes to be the first WSU student to earn a sustainability and environmental education teaching endorsement, for which the College of Education is seeking approval from the state.
Borja envisions starting her teaching career in a therapeutic outdoor program such as Outward Bound. She plans to take facilitator training for the WSU challenge course this spring, hoping to follow in Crooks’ footsteps and work for University Recreation.
Crooks thinks teachers-to-be are a good choice to conduct team-building workshops and convince people they have the confidence to climb rope ladders: “Of course I’m biased, but I think as teachers we’re in a unique position to facilitate this kind of learning.”
Crooks went through the secondary education program at WSU, graduating in 2009 with degrees in history and social studies and her teaching certificate. The Lacey, Wash., native is working on a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. Her goal: teach history and coach in a high school.
Learn more online about WSU teacher education ( and the Challenge Program (