Students ride the waves for credit

When Ryan Bouton starts his studies at Evergreen State College in Washington this fall, he'll arrive on campus with several credits already in hand. He earned them while surfing the waves off the golden beaches of Costa Rica.

Becky Slattery plans to spend half of July hurtling down the slopes on British Columbia's Blackcomb Glacier. Her snowboard team membership will earn her credit for her senior year at Gould Academy, a Maine prep school.

And last month, Hawaii's State Board of Education allowed the state's 44 public high schools to create official surfing teams for the first time. This followed years of debate with the state attorney general's office, which had opposed the move due to safety issues.

These developments illustrate a growing trend: Schools are using board sports like surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, and freeride skiing as educational tools.

Beach Boys hits like "Surfin,' " "Surfin' USA," and "California Girls" once popularized an image of surfing counterculture that seemed the antithesis of formal education, but that seems to be slowly changing. Today some educators argue that board sports are conducive to a self-discipline that schools should be embracing.

The idea of experiential and expeditionary learning - education centered on a vigorous outdoor activity - now enjoys so much credibility that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated $12.5 million to one of the doctrine's leading exponents, the New York-based Outward Bound organization. The money is to help create 20 new high schools, eight of them in New York City, to serve more than 8,000 mainly lower-income students.

When it comes to board sports, young enthusiasts share a universal language, says Kim Hellman, director of the Grom Project, a San Diego-based nonprofit that uses board sports to involve teenagers in beach cleanups, fundraising initiatives, career planning, and environmental projects.

"This language, and the common culture around it, has created an international framework of discourse and values that differ from other sports," says Ms. Hellman. "Teenagers and preteens relate to it strongly. Educators now know it can motivate young people about activities that might otherwise bore them." (The word "grom" comes from "grommet" - a protective swimming plug - and means any young board sports beginner.)

Board sports represent "a lifestyle choice and a particular kind of intelligence," says Dave Bean, who teaches English and history at the 168-year-old Gould Academy and coaches its skateboard team. Board sportspeople are often independent thinkers, he says, with unique learning styles.

"They resist external organization and prefer to make their own way," says Mr. Bean. "This can be a constructive force. The focus and creativity needed to be physically articulate on a fast-moving board aren't far from the controlled, individual vision required to organize a forceful and original idea for a project presentation or paper."

At the 70-day surfing program at Costa Rica's Rainforest Outward Bound School, students like Mr. Bouton are able to combine surfing with independent study in such areas as Spanish, natural history, and coastal ecology to earn college credits.

Despite the time Bouton spent on his board, the program wasn't all fun and games, he insists. "While in Costa Rica, I did extensive field work for these subjects," he says. "This has been accepted for credit as part of my degree program at Evergreen."

Participants can potentially transfer credits to US universities including Duke, Rutgers, Stanford, Georgetown, Michigan State, and the University of Colorado, says Rob Jordan, communications director of the Rainforest program.

The school's courses in various countries are run independently, Mr. Jordan points out, so it's up to the individual student to promote the program to his college and to produce work that satisfies his or her school.

Board sports are also being used to teach and motivate teens and preteens through extramural projects that do not offer academic credit but promote education-reinforcing aims such as encouraging literacy and community service.

The National Scholastic Surfing Association promotes young surfers' academic accomplishments. This month, it published a list of more than 140 surfers with grade point averages of 3.5 or higher.

Scholastic Inc., one of the world's largest publisher of educational materials for children, is using skateboarding on its website to introduce youngsters to science. An essay by 9-year-old skateboarder Skyler Siljeg links readers to a site that explains the physics behind skateboard acrobatics, provided by San Francisco's Exploratorium.

According to Hellman, board sports encourage learning because they emphasize self-reliance as a moral value. Echoing this, Bean says his skateboarding team's activities clearly have an ethical aspect. "There's a definite emphasis on building a moral compass. This fits the kind of independent young people who prefer these sports."

Board sports are also winning recognition as formal school sports. Ms. Slattery has snowboarded since the eighth grade and also skateboards and wakeboards. She's toured New England extensively with Gould Academy's snowboard team and has visited New Mexico. "I train a lot," she says. "In the winter school term I may spend 20 hours a week snowboarding. When we travel, our teachers are great about working with us, online and with notes and exercises we do on the road."

Schoolteacher Lani Madrid coaches surfing and skateboarding as formal physical education activities at San Dieguito High School Academy in Encinitas, Calif. "Our school pioneered educational recognition of these sports," he says. "This was done by my predecessor, Al Southworth, in the early '70s. US schools since then have slowly but increasingly seen that these activities can motivate the young and hone their powers of concentration."

Some educators argue that because they are based on individual performance, board sports may motivate young people in ways that more traditional sports do not. Sociologist Stephen Hull has even found principles of Zen Buddhism embedded in surfing philosophy.

And of course, there is always the coolness factor.

Says Hellman: "Grom sports are cool. This fact is used to market products. Why shouldn't it also be used to promote knowledge and inspiration?"

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