SFU professor brings adventure-based learning to the world

George Agnes in Altiplano, Bolivia.

George Agnes in Altiplano, Bolivia.

SFU chemistry professor, George Agnes, has created a curriculum that give students from 125 schools worldwide the chance to interact with the biodiversity of adventure settings. His longtime interest in exploring demanding and diverse environments is fueling innovations in a youth development project that began with a conversation with physician and Order of Canada inductee, Ewan Affleck.

Agnes and Affleck are now both members of impossible2Possible (i2P), a community of field researchers, environmentalists and young professionals, committed to turning a natural environment into a classroom setting. The locations explored, and themes encountered are ranging, but the overarching goals are preserved.

“We want to make students aware of their imprint on an ever-changing environment, with the hopes that they use this knowledge to form a positive impact on the global community,” says Agnes.

Academic and life mentoring

Emma Morley, Youth Ambassador for a recent i2P expedition in Utah, embarked on a journey of hands-on educational discovery that motivated her to stay involved, and help share her inspiring experiences with future Youth Ambassadors.

“Our expedition theme in Utah was paleontology, and the educational opportunity felt like a backstage pass to the world of dinosaurs and ancient geology,” explains Morley.

The relationship Agnes shares with students like Morley has the mentorship qualities of a graduate student/senior supervisor relationship, but also differs from this traditional exchange, as expeditions tend to present students and professors with new and unique challenges.

“The connections between the particular geographic location and the chosen theme are further developed as expeditions progress. This could raise topics that are not in one’s area of expertise, but that is in large part what fuels the self-exploration process,” explains Agnes.

As the expedition moves forward, students pass on their fieldwork experience to students in nearby communities, and to their peers back home through classroom stories that are broadcast via satellite communication. The classroom stories are mean to serve as a clear example of what can be gained through experiential learning. But what the program organizers feel really differentiates adventure learning on an i2P expedition from other out-of-classroom experiences are the omnipresent physical challenges students must collectively address, sometimes in order to ensure their safety and well-being. Ray Zahab, i2P founder and expeditions director, says his trek across the Sahara desert is a testament to the importance of collaboration.

“Ray admits that he wouldn’t have survived the Sahara without the support of his team. With the same spirit, our students battle the elements together, convince one another of their own inner strength, and encourage intellectual curiosity,” says Agnes.

Upcoming expedition

Agnes and Morley have reconvened with the i2P group for an expedition to the Lost Coast of Northern California. Morley will take part of the educational team, and will focus on capturing footage of experts and Youth Ambassadors throughout their explorations. Agnes has developed a curriculum that examines the redwood species of trees and marine ecology, with the overall aim of highlighting the connection between terrestrial and aquatic life of the forest at the riparian zones where salmon spawn.

“We will be paying close attention to the stream, particularly the activity of the salmon, in order to better understand those interactions between marine ecology and forest ecology that are crucial to the survival of wildlife in the region,” explains Agnes.


To learn more about impossible2Possible’s expeditions, classroom stories, and engagement opportunities, please visit