Toppled privy inspires teamwork and dedication on grad student’s dogsled trek

Nicholas Butt’s embedded research offers improvements to wildlife federation’s adventurous outdoor program

Nicholas Butt had no idea that his graduate degree research would require him to right a fallen outhouse.

Butt, who is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in the Werklund School of Education, was part of a cohort engaged in a 10-day snowshoe and dogsled expedition across Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. During the trip, the group had to work together to care for the sled dogs, cook meals, transport supplies and chart the day’s travel route, all while dealing with overnight temperatures that dipped as low as -27 C.

Upon arriving at that day’s campsite, the group discovered the wooden outhouse had fallen over and was frozen to the ground. They took turns shoveling a path around the structure, chipping away at the ice and then pushing as a team to try to shake it free. 

“It seemed like a simple job to dig out and upright, but we were at this old outhouse for hours. It looked like there was no way to get it up without tearing it apart,” says Butt. “With six of us pushing, the outhouse finally broke free. We all cheered and celebrated with our ice-covered throne. It was a symbol of our teamwork and dedication.”

This backwoods journey was the first stage of a three-stage program offered by the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s (CWF) Canadian Conservation Corps (CCC). The program provides youth with experiential learning opportunities in environmental education, leadership training and service-learning. Prior to the outdoor expedition, participants receive first aid training, hiking guide certification and CWF WILD education certification.

The second stage consists of a service-learning placement with a partner environmental organization focusing on conservation of the Canadian landscape, and the final stage sees participants design and execute a community outreach project in the fields of conservation, the environment and community service. 

Experiential learning

Butt was invited to join the team to carry out research that would be used to improve the experience of future CCC cohorts. His first-hand experience with the program gave him a nuanced understanding of the program and served as a foundation for the upcoming research.

I joined the first cohort to gain an authentic experience with the program. This personal experience helped me empathize with and understand the experiences the interviewees shared.

Since Butt’s February 2018 trek, 12 cohorts have taken part in the program. He conducted 27 interviews with participants, facilitators and partner organizations from three cohorts to gain insight into their interactions with other team members, the impact it had on them personally, and their thoughts about the future of the program.

Among the themes revealed were the value of building community as well as the importance of learning through difficulty. Interviewees expressed the belief that living and working in close quarters with new acquaintances and surviving in an outdoor environment resulted in personal gains.  

“Participants experienced difficulty, overcame that difficulty, and felt stronger, more confident and more experienced after coming out the other side," he says. "The struggles that participants experienced and overcame tended to create a positive impact.”

Ongoing communication

To have an immediate impact on the program, Butt regularly briefed CWF leaders and provided an interim report on his findings. Sharing the perceptions of the research subjects allowed managers to make ongoing tweaks to the program.

“This process allowed for short-term changes through preliminary findings and long-term changes through conclusions from the study,” says Butt.

One such change was to an emergency training scenario that was introduced without advance warning. Interviewees reported the experience to be anxiety-inducing, so the CWF brought in Red Cross instructors to deliver two-day safety training sessions. This adjustment resulted in the experience maintaining its learning value while being less of a shock to the cohort members. 

“The CCC is continually changing, and this research is playing a role in informing the CWF for positive change,” says Butt.

CWF Director of Education Mike Bingley, MEd’16, was confident Butt’s input would be beneficial and shares his opinion of the value of continual improvements. “As a program that had a number of cohorts, we knew that we could make changes along the way that would make the program better. We never think that we have a ‘complete and perfect’ program.”

Mutually beneficial partnerships

Butt’s supervisor, and Werklund School Faculty Professor Dr. Bonnie Shapiro, PhD, believes this Mitacs-funded partnership affords post-secondary students a unique opportunity to help industry partners address practical problems while building components into the work that inform their research.

“The kind of all-in involvement that I have seen in these deep engagements with the field have, in many instances, meant significant collaboration and even career opportunities for university scholars following completion of their projects,” she says.

With the data collection complete, Butt is now preparing the interviews for analysis. A final report to the CWF will follow. He also hopes to continue his association with the CCC by assisting participants in completing the program, ideally without having to hoist any additional outhouses.