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New teacher hired to head outdoor education

September 18, 2008

The UW-River Falls health and human performance department has a new professor, Paul Shirilla, teaching the outdoor education minor this semester. The choice to hire Shirilla was finalized last spring. Department head Debra Allyn, an individual who was involved in the scouting of potential candidates for the spot, said that his past experience is well suited to the job at hand.

“We’re pleased to have him,” Allyn said.

Shirilla is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and has a master’s degree in kinesiology. In addition to his formal education, Shirilla has other outdoor experience, having engaged in activities such as a three month long mountain course that involved climbing mountains north of Calgary, Alberta.  He also spent one year in Australia working at several outdoor education centers.

“I didn’t figure out I definitely wanted to do it until graduate school,” Shirilla said.

He always had an affinity for the outdoors but did not decide he wanted to pursue a career in outdoor education until that time, he said.

“I feel lucky because my experience fits with the class,” Shirilla said.

The outdoor education minor is a program that UWRF has offered for several years. It attempts to teach students through experiential learning. While the method can most simply be defined as learning by doing, Shirilla elaborated on what sets experiential learning apart and prevents it from simply being categorized as hands-on learning.

“It’s learning by doing, but learning initiated by an experience,” Shirilla said.  “The process is meant to give students an experience that they can draw personal knowledge and wisdom from as opposed to reading data from a book for example. It tries to put the experience first.”

The program is designed for those wishing to pursue an outdoor career.  It aims to teach students things such as sustainability, environmental ethics, nature preservation, social responsibility and leadership skills.

Classes associated with the program include backpacking, canoeing, environmental geology and recreational climbing. According to the outdoor education program’s brochure, there are also field trips with possible locations such as Black River State Forest, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Devil’s Lake State Park. While such trips are important to the curriculum, Shirilla said the challenge in planning prolonged trips in a way that will mesh well with other curriculum schedules.

While teaching at UWRF, Shirilla is pursuing a doctorate through the University of New Hampshire in accordance with the position’s requirements and hopes to expand the outdoor education program.