Saint John's Outdoor University. It's quite a mouthful, and it fields no athletic teams and has no building to call its own. Still, it may be one of the better-kept secrets at Saint John's University. But for the thousands who benefit each year from its programs, the learning is a valuable complement to what takes place in the classroom.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tom Kroll, who works half-time as director for the program and half-time as Abbey land manager and forester. That job description proves useful in understanding the division of labor here. As it has since 1856, the Abbey owns the forests and lands and infrastructure, while the University oversees the educational programs. And as you might expect with Tom's job description, two halves not surprisingly total more than one full-time position.
The first point to note about Saint John's Outdoor University is its audience. It serves a wide spectrum of people, but first and foremost it is a great resource for the students at Saint John's University and the College of Saint Benedict. Biology students in particular can take full advantage of all there is to offer, whether for individual research or group experience, and the Biology Department has worked to incorporate field activities into the curriculum of its majors. It only makes sense, since the resources available at Saint John's are unrivaled among colleges in Minnesota. Students need only step out of their residence halls and the experience begins.
Topics for investigation vary widely. Biology majors, for example, do water sampling during the first year of study. They also can take part in a maple syrup lab and prescribed burnings of the prairie that flanks the entry to campus. Students have done research projects on oak regeneration as well. In addition, some thirty students each year work with the pre-K through twelfth grade classes that visit the campus regularly.
Students might be surprised to discover that the programs don't stop with them. Community education also ranks high on the list of priorities, and thousands of visitors participate in such disparate events as the Maple Syrup Festival, Collegeville Colors, and the Avon Hills Conference.
To appreciate the scale of outreach to younger students one need only look at the school buses that regularly park alongside the entry to Saint John's. Last year nearly 8,000 young visitors availed themselves of the offerings, and for many if not most it proves to be an invaluable experience. For starters, Kroll encourages them not to be afraid to sit on the ground and just listen. There's much to learn, especially for kids who have little or no experience of nature.
Saint John's Outdoor University is a sponsored program of the University, which supplies significant resources to support it. A Friends association also contributes through annual memberships, and a small but growing endowment adds to the mix. Like Kroll's job description, these sources of support accomplish far more than the sum of their parts.