Grand Canyon Group ShotOn January 4th, 2016 a group of University of Iowa students loaded the adventure van and set Grand Canyon National Park as their final destination point. From the rim down to the bottom, following the narrow and carving route of the Bright Angel Trail, these students won’t only be taking in the sights, but more importantly, as part of the University’s Leadership in the Outdoors class, they will be putting their leadership curriculum to the ultimate test. Just before their departure towards one of America’s most scenic holes in the ground, Jay Gorsch, doctoral student with the College of Education and trip leader for Leadership in the Outdoors, was happy to give Fin & Feather the 411 on his upcoming trip and the curriculum he teaches, as well as other ways students and prospective leaders can get involved:


Fin & Feather: The Grand Canyon Backpacking Trip isn’t your average Lifetime Leisure Skills class offered by the University, what has been leading up to this trip of a lifetime?

Jay GorshJay Gorsh: The Leadership in the Outdoors class has been meeting for 2 ½ hours every Tuesday during this last semester to build leadership attributes and practice the hard skills of leading a trip. We also had two overnight trips to Macbride where we did some backpacking, camping, and furthered our education outside of the classroom. With the classes every Tuesday, and the practice trips to Macbride, the Leadership in the Outdoor class culminates when we leave on January 4th for a week-long backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon.


F&F: The Leadership in the Outdoors class sounds like quite the opportunity for students, what were you teaching the students throughout the course of the semester and how will it be applied to the Grand Canyon trip?

JG:We spent the semester teaching them skills to be an efficient outdoor leader, and then during the trip every student has an opportunity to be what we call “Leader of the Day.” As Leader of the Day, the students take charge as if they were running the trip. They decide everything from when are we getting started in the morning to how many miles are we going to cover in the day, what kind of pace we are going to set, selecting the campsite at the end of the day, and making decisions as to what time are we going to shut it down at night.Grand-Canyon10Through that, the students will decide what type of leadership styles they want to use, and there are a lot to choose from. You can be a democratic leader and let the group vote on things they would like to do that day, or they can take a more autocratic approach and be the ones making the decisions. We encourage the students to experiment a little bit with what leadership style they like and hopefully discover something called situational leadership, where any given situation might lend to any given leadership style, and we want the students to be able to recognize that.


F&F:What are some of the big considerations taken by yourself and the students before a big trip like the Grand Canyon?

JG: To pull off a big trip like this you need to understand the permitting and reservation systems and what organizations or associations you might be working with, and then consider the different environmental factors to determine when it is a safe time to go. This leads into risk management. We work with the students to encourage them to really think about their clientele, and think about what sort of expertise and skills their clients will have so they can plan an appropriate trip.

Planning a trip and factoring in the the paperwork and environmental factors are really important first steps in considering a big trip, but almost more importantly, you also have to have a self-awareness of your capabilities to lead the trip you’re planning. You have to have the right certifications and skill sets and know that you are not biting off more than you can chew choose because you are in a real position of accountability.


F&F: Going beyond the planning for the trip, once you’re actually out there what type of hard and soft skills will your students be learning/practicing? Which set of skills are more important in your opinion?

JG:The soft skills include but are not limited to being able to make educated decisions for the group, having an awareness of the environment and to be able to help others stop and enjoy the experience, as well as the ability to reflect and help others reflect on the adventure experience. Soft skills also include dynamics, the interpersonal relations and communication systems you put into place.

Hard skills are needed when developing the trip, planning out the mileage and permitting, and then on the trip itself the hard skills involve packing your pack appropriately, adjusting and fitting your pack, using a camp stove, the list goes on and is never ending with the different hard, physical skills you can pick up and improve upon.

For leading a trip with clients the combination of both hard skill and soft skills is an important thing to work on. I see the soft skills representing more the art of leading a trip, where the hard skills are the building blocks or structure of the trip.

“I see the soft skills representing more the art of leading a trip, where the hard skills are the building blocks or scaffolding for the trip.”

Grand-Canyon 2012


F&F: If future students are interested in getting involved with trips like the one you are about to take, what’s their best course of action in doing so?

JG: The natural starting point begins with the Lifetime Leisure Skills classes through the University where you can be a participant of an adventure trip. Through those classes you learn a few skills along the way, but you are going as a participant and getting comfortable with the outdoor environment. If you find you are someone who really benefits from those types of experiences and you want to take it further, then the next step would be getting more involved in our outdoor education program, whether it is working at the climbing wall, ropes course, or going along as an assistant trip leader and gaining some experience that way. The Leadership in the Outdoors Class is the culminating course from there.