Rowan class: Pursuing happiness, furthering education

Rowan class: Pursuing happiness, furthering education

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They’ve climbed rock walls in the gymnasium at Rowan University. They’ve hiked a 150-foot cliff in Bucks County. And the students in a special topics course in the Thomas N. Bantivoglio Honors Concentration at Rowan have transformed into flying squirrels, soaring around the upper echelon of the gym while harnessed and well spotted. All while earning three credits.

But while their class – “The Pursuit of Happiness: Engaging Adventure Psychologically” – sounds like fun, it’s a far cry from the often derided “Basket Weaving 101.” 

Promoting lifelong wellness

In fact, the interdisciplinary course is designed to help students understand how adventure activities can promote lifelong wellness, both physical and emotional.

Taught by Dr. DJ Angelone, of the Department of Psychology, and Dr. Shari Willis, of the Department of Health & Exercise Science, “The Pursuit of Happiness” presents students with a wide range of course work and activities, offering experiences in the context of psychological theories and processes, such as positive psychology; allows them to determine what challenges to accept; and promotes their leadership skills.

In December, the students added helmets and harnesses to their jeans, shirts and sneakers. While one prepared to become the flying squirrel, 10 classmates grabbed the rope attached to the squirrel’s harness.

1, 2, 3 -- fly!

Willis counted off:

1, and nobody moved.

2, and the squirrel sprinted for a doorway.

3, and the team of 10 pulled on the rope and launched the squirrel skyward.

Each student who launched had a different reaction. Some vamped. Some pedaled their legs. Some shot arms and legs akimbo. There were giggles and smiles. But no one pleaded to be eased back down.

Gabby Bryceland, 21, a senior English education major from Southampton, insisted the activity was fun. “It’s been really cool, taking this class because a lot of the things we do involve heights, which I’m really afraid of,” she said. “Once you get up there, you kind of forget about it. It’s really cool. You’re just flying through the air.”

Trusting

Her classmates were powerful enough to pull the tiny Bryceland close to the ceiling, but she wasn’t concerned.  “I really didn’t have any doubts. I know both of my instructors know what they’re doing, so there’s no reason to be afraid. And I’ve gotten to totally trust my class.”

On an earlier fall morning, most of the 18 students in the class tackled the “rocks” ascending in colorful patterns up one wall of the Rowan gym. Some students were agile, and some were cautious. Some reached the top of the climbing wall, and some stopped a few feet off the ground. All were helmeted and harnessed, with several other students – a belayer, backup belayer, rope tender and harness holder – grasping nylon cords attached to the climbers’ equipment to ensure they didn’t reach the ground other than at their own speed or of their own volition.

Angelone said students undertake “challenge by choice” in the class. They decide how far to push themselves, and there’s no penalty for not going the distance. “Our goal is not for everyone to become a mountain climber . . .  it’s to engage in peak experiences for whatever your adventure is, to encourage peak experiences, to become self-actualized,” Angelone said.

Pursuing new adventures

Teresa Mahler, 21, a senior sociology major, from Leonia, New Jersey, was the first one to attempt the wall. At 5’2”, she was tiny, but there was nothing timid about her, though she didn’t reach the top. “I recently tried some new adventures, and I’m just going to continue on this roll I’ve been having,” she said.

“A primary goal of the class is for students to become reflective practitioners of self, using skills learned in class,” noted the professors in their proposal for the class, which also emphasizes team building.

Course objectives include helping students become independent learners, in part via journaling about their reflections of readings and experiences and by leading class discussions and presentations; apply psychological concepts such as mindfulness while engaged in activities; develop critical thinking and analytical skills as they work as a group to determine solutions to problems; and evoke changes in knowledge, skills abilities and beliefs by exposing them to novel experiences in the context of personal and group psychological development and applications.

Diving deeper

Angelone and Willis had collaborated on a grant-funded project to prevent aggressive driving several years ago. She suggested partnering on this course about a year and a half ago, focusing on psychology and adventure, tapping each of their unique areas of expertise.

“I love teaching adventure and experiential education,” said Willis, who earned a Ph.D. in health promotion and education from the University of Utah. “I love to play inside or outside regardless of the season. It seems we focus on many negative things in life and there are many positives to be considered. In adventure education we use the Experiential Learning Cycle developed by David Kolb. We begin with an experience, reflect on the experience, but then we dive deeper. We encourage students to apply the experience to something else in life or conceptualize it more abstractly. We began the semester by playing games . . . and we led into initiatives where students must create a solution to a scenario or problem given by us.”

Angelone bought into the course in part because of his own undergraduate experience at California State University-Sacramento related to “flow,” assessing life and deciding what changes need to be made to make it more fulfilling.

Considering the positive

The class ties into “positive psychology.” Often, in psychology, he said, “You look at people who are sick and try to bring them back to some baseline.” In positive psychology, the intent is to take healthy individuals and empower them to grow past the baseline, according to Angelone, who earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Kent State University.

Cody Fauver, 21, a senior mathematics and mathematics education major from Florence, New Jersey, applauded the learning community that the class has fostered. Some seemingly pointless games at the start of the class, like playing a twist on baseball with a rubber chicken, actually had a lot of depth. He said they contributed to team and community building, strengths that he can carry over into all aspects of school and life.

Skills for a lifetime

Grace Van Cleef, 18, a freshman psychology major from Madison, New Jersey, said the class shows in a very physical way how to set goals and overcome obstacles. “We apply that to real life, to less tangible goals,” she said. 

“I have seen students in this class try and then say they can do more, and they go for it,” Willis said. “They empower themselves intrinsically. Of course, the other students encourage and cheer. Isn’t that what we want in life – to be able to challenge ourselves and have a support system backing us?”