The West Virginia University Institute of Technology is often known and renowned for its engineering program.
Once the school begin opens its doors in Beckley this fall to incoming freshmen, a new legacy for the school begins.
Citing great success with Adventure West Virginia in Morgantown, school officials hope a similar program on the Tech campus in Beckley will have a similar outcome.
Tech Adventures, led by director Steve Storck, begins this fall in Beckley for all students of WVU Tech whether they are on the Beckley or Montgomery campus.
Adventure West Virginia and Tech Adventures work independently of each other, but are structured to share ideas and administrative procedures, Storck said.
The outdoor adventure program has several components planned for the opening of WVU Tech in Beckley: a student orientation program, academic courses and services to allow students to plan their own outdoor recreation activities.
Currently, the student orientation program is set up for its initial run with two six-day sessions scheduled for the weeks of July 31 and Aug. 8, Storck said. Each session has room for approximately 20 students.
Storck said the students in the orientation program will set up a base camp at Lake Stephens and then throughout the six days take part in rock climbing, ropes courses, whitewater rafting and more. Students will also take part in service projects on both the Beckley and Montgomery campuses.
Students can currently enroll in the outdoor orientation program.
Patterned after the Adventure West Virginia program in Morgantown, Tech Adventures will eventually use student leaders to run the week-long sessions, but being in its first year, staff and local outdoor outfitters will run the sessions.
“We’re building a college community,” Storck said. “The program allows students to get to know each other and helps students learn how to be successful among their peers.
“They can learn how to balance a social life and their academics, sitting around a campfire setting goals,” Storck continued.
Beckley, situated in an area that is nine miles away from a national park and one of the largest recreational facilities in the world, the Summit Bechtel Reserve, will be a perfect fit for the launch of Tech Adventures.
“Central and southern West Virginia are rich in trails and natural resources. We are in the wildest part of the mid-Atlantic region,” Storck said.
“There are not many institutions that have a national park in their back yard,” Storck said.
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Storck pointed out that there are similar “beneficial outdoor programs that exist all around the country.”
A lifelong outdoor enthusiast, Storck grew up in Loudon, Va., a few miles from the Appalachian Trail and only 15 miles away from Harpers Ferry, where he began working for outdoor outfitters leading rafting trips on the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
No stranger to West Virginia’s hills and mountains, Storck said students are responding to the outdoor programs being offered on college campuses.
“Students tend to do better right off the bat,” Strock said, citing graduation rates that improve 4 to 5 percent when students participate in the outdoor programs.
University of New Hampshire Associate Professor Brent Bell, who has worked with West Virginia University, said the programs are becoming very popular nationally.
Students are citing their experiences in outdoor orientation programs as one of their most important college experiences.
The outdoor education expert, who has conducted studies on 28 college campuses, said West Virginia has been researching the effects of outdoor programs to maximize their success.
Bell said in one study he conducted at the Morgantown campus through 425 student essays, close to 90 percent of the participants said the outdoor orientation program was their best educational experience.
“It’s a very positive experience for students,” Bell said. “Students tend to be retained, build more social support and live healthier lifestyles.”
Bell said another benefit of the outdoor programs is that they are usually led by peer leaders. The peer leaders get additional benefits, Bell said, by “finding their voice and being influenced to become outgoing leaders.”
“I think the big part is that students develop a sense of belongness. Going to college is a big decision and they go in with some uncertainty,” Bell said. “In the programs they develop interpersonal trust with a small group of peers, which relieves the uncertainty and allows them to be themselves.
“Nature exposes them to who they really are,” Bell said. “Then they can be more themselves on campus. It breaks down social barriers being together in the wilderness.”
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For Storck, adventures in the outdoors are in his blood.
While obtaining a degree in biology from Frostburg State University in Maryland, a recreation master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., then working on a Ph.D. in recreation resource management at West Virginia University that focused on assessing trail erosion and management practices, Storck led many students and friends on outdoor treks into the mountains, rivers and caves of West Virginia, southwestern Pennsylvania and parts of Virginia.
After studying in Colorado and taking a break from his studies at West Virginia University to teach at Garrett College in McHenry, Md., in their Adventure Sports Institute, Storck says he still meets many of his former students from that time who are now leaders in the adventure industry in West Virginia and across the country. Some of them helped lure him back to the Mountain State.
No stranger to his “beloved” (Appalachian) mountains, Storck is “back in West Virginia to hopefully introduce another generation to the wonders of the mountains and rivers that have played such a big part in my life over the last 40 years.”
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One of the unique aspects of the Tech Adventures program will be the fact that the recreation and academic sides will be under the same umbrella.
“Tech Adventures has taken a unique approach of combining resources and an administrative structure to provide integrated learning opportunities for those interested in pursuing adventure recreation management as a career and for those studying other fields at Tech who want a fun class or to learn a new skill as part of our co-curricular offerings,” Storck said.
He pointed out that many institutions have separate administrative structures for their student life and academic outdoor recreation programs.
“While they often collaborate, they rarely share resources, creating redundant inventories of equipment and different program models,” Storck said.
To start out in the fall of 2016, Tech will offer two elective courses: Essential Skills of Adventure Recreation and Adventure in Society.
According to its website, the first class will focus on “foundational outdoor skills needed to safely participate in and lead trips in outdoor settings. Students learn and practice equipment selection and use, outdoor cooking, map & compass navigation and wilderness first aid in classroom and outdoor settings.”
The second class will “explore how outdoor adventure has transformed from a daily necessity for survival in early cultures to its modern form of recreational pursuit. Through readings, media, lectures and hands-on adventure experiences students explore historical and modern perspectives of popular adventure pursuits and their societal influence.”
“We hope to have 18 credits of course work approved by next fall so students pursuing a degree in interdisciplinary studies can have a focus area in adventure recreation management,” Storck stated.
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Storck said southern West Virginia is primed with opportunities for students to get integrated learning experiences with local outdoor outfitters to learn how the outdoor adventure business works.
“We want to get you in the field,” Storck said. “Working with outfitters, giving you management skills to set up a business at colleges and universities or other recreational endeavors.”
Storck said he has cast a wide net in terms of who and where in the state students could pursue outdoor adventure opportunities.
“We are open to working with all outfitters and outdoor programs. This also will enable our students to have access to future internship and employment opportunities. I have reached out to as many companies as I can to provide broad exposure to the different styles and formats of the central West Virginia adventure industry,” Storck said.
Support is coming from all directions in terms of Tech’s adventure program, Storck said.
“Everyone I’ve spoken with has been very supportive of our program and open to working together,” Storck stated. “This is a very collaborative program and we will work closely with community partners including regional outfitters, programs, the National Park Service, state parks, the state Whitewater Commission, state office of tourism, the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, Active Southern WV and others.”
One big partnership the university has its eye on lies with the Boy Scouts of America and the Summit.
The Summit could be a key component of the Tech Adventures program for student use and recruitment.
“We would love to give our students access to world-class facilities and trails,” Storck said. “We are working together to form a common vision between groups.”
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Matt Monroe, director of programs with the BSA at the Summit Bechtel Scouting Reserve, confirmed that the group is looking to work with West Virginia University Tech to benefit both agencies.
Monroe said he hopes opportunities will arise where the BSA can hire students from Tech who have become proficient in outdoor activities to offer internships and seasonal employment for outdoor programming at the reserve.
“A lot of things are still being discussed at this time that are premature to detail,” Monroe said. “But our relationship with WVU Tech is very important to us.”
Monroe did state that once an agreement is formalized between both groups, he hopes that Tech students will be able to use the Summit’s resources and the Boy Scouts of America would be able to use Tech’s facilities for programs like their STEM Scouts.
In the meantime, Tech Adventures is still solidifying its program for the future.
The program will have two full-time staff, Storck and an assistant director.
Storck said they will begin training student leaders in the spring and use 6-8 student workers next summer.
Once they have a fully running academic 18-credit program, he hopes to have 50-60 students enrolled. The largest program he was a part of, Garrett College, had enrolled around 90 students.
Yet Storck is ready to see incoming Tech students take part in the outdoor orientation program, which is not too far away.
“We want you to challenge yourself academically, physically and mentally,” Storck said. “You know, study hard and play hard.”