UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls
Associate Professor of Health and Human Performance
One of Paul Shirilla’s most impactful teaching experiences actually came at a time when he didn’t know the answer.
Paul, an associate professor of health and human performance and coordinator of the outdoor adventure education minor program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, spends a large portion of his teaching time outside of a traditional classroom. For many of his adventure-based classes, he and his students engage in a variety of outdoor activities. One such class takes Paul and his students on an overnight backpacking and canoe trip.
“We go to the St. Croix River and we hike up river. When we do that in the spring, I have to be careful of how high the water level is because sometimes we have heavy rain and parts of the trail can get washed out,” he explains.
As a professor, Paul had done his due diligence and called the ranger station to check on trail conditions. After being given the all clear, he and his students set off to hike to their campsite. As they neared camp, however, the group was surprised to find a flooded, impassable trail.
“I had been to that area a number of times but I’d not ever been in this particular spot where I wasn’t really sure what to do,” he recounts. “Students see me as one, I’ve been here before and two, I’m the professor and I sort of just must know the answer to everything, right?”
“I remember stopping them and saying, ‘you know I really don’t know where to go right now.’ And they kind of looked at me like ‘what?’ You’re our leader right now, you’re our professor, how do you not know where to go?” he said.
As they determined their next course of action, Paul gave the class some options.
“I said I have a pretty good idea of where I’d go. We can go all the way back and I know another trail we could use or I’m pretty sure if we just kind of bushwhack through the woods that way, then we’re going to hit a road. When we hit the road, we can go in and it’ll connect us to our campsite,” he recalls. “Of course they said, ‘no, we’re going bushwhacking!’”
“I knew if we kept going far enough, we were going to hit the road. I could even see power lines, so I wasn’t just going off into the abyss unsafely,” he says with a laugh. “It was this thing, though. We were all on this little adventure together and we pushed through this time of uncertainty.”
According to Paul, many of the students reflected on the moment of uncertainty as a highlight of the trip.
“What that says to me is, I’m comfortable sort of not knowing and being okay to have those experiences. It gets back to that idea that students really do like it when there’s a sense of really authentic challenge and adventure,” he says. “Even that little hour time was enough where they remember that we had this experience. That level of uncertainty was really powerful for them.”
In his time as an educator, though, Paul has realized that it’s not just the uncertain moments that can have an impact on students. As an outdoor adventure expert, Paul’s classroom is often the great outdoors, and he is well aware of the influence his field can have on students.
“Students tell me all the time that they really like having experiences. Whether they call it hands-on learning, active learning, experiences, whatever it is. Over and over they say that they love that,” he says.
“I take it really seriously when our chancellor [Dean Van Galen] stands up in front of us every fall in the opening meeting and talks about our dedication to what he calls ‘high impact educational experiences.’ They are the things where we get students out and apply the things they learn in the classroom,” he explains. “Clearly what I do in outdoor adventure is a natural fit for that because we’re always preparing to do some sort of experience.”
“Being able to have class sizes that are small enough, having support across this university for that type of learning, I think is what I enjoy most about my job,” he says.
When talking with Paul, it’s clear that he embraces not just his field of outdoor education, but his role as an educator. He shares that the goal of his outdoor classes is to instill a basic set of skills and to make the participant want to do the activity again. He wants his students to have an “enjoyment of the outdoors” that they can share with friends and family.
“My highlight is always when I have students in my classes and we go out and do those things and we’ll talk about it in papers and we’ll cover it later in assessments. They say ‘you know what when I took this class I thought I was going to hate cross country skiing and I thought it was amazing and I love it and I want to go do it again,’” he says. “And if I have that repeat itself, whether it’s camping or climbing or any other sort of experience, that’s always my highlight - when I can turn people on to an activity that they can take with them in the future.”
Regardless of whether he’s introducing them to new outdoor activities or preparing them for careers in the outdoor education field, Paul is keenly aware of the impact his field of work has on his ability to relate to students.
“My relationship with my students, at the core, is where the meaning of my work comes from and that’s something I enjoy,” he says.
His outdoor adventure classes only serve to strengthen those relationships.
“It enhances my ability to have strong relationship. Even something as simple as spending three hours on a car ride. I learn a lot about students in the car and I learn a lot about students in a canoe,” he says. “There is something different about things when I’m sitting in a canoe with a student for four hours.”
“I believe learning is a social process at its core. When you are around people that you trust, whether it’s your peers in the classroom or most certainly if you trust and have a relationship with your professor, your learning is going to be so much more effective,” explains Paul. “I do focus a lot on that social relationship because I think it’s foundational to learning.”
While he believes social relationships are a key to learning, he is also quick to emphasize the importance of outdoor education.
“Outdoor education has evolved. I think what it’s going to now, and why I think it’s important and why I have a passion for what I do, is the reemergence and understanding of human’s connection to the natural world,” he explains. “It’s so important for humans, for health, for sustainability of our planet, for people to realize that we are truly connected.”
“I think if the more we can, the more time we can spend outdoors and the more things we learn about the outside, it’s going to make us a healthier individual and make us a healthier society,” Paul says.