Careers in Outdoor Education: Options and Education Requirements

Oct 09, 2019

An outdoor educator teaches people about environmental science, conservation biology, or other topics related to the natural environment. These professionals often learn on the job, but also may have a bachelor's degree or certificate from a related program.

Essential Information

There are many degree programs that may prepare individuals for careers related to the field of outdoor education. Possible majors may include environmental studies, forestry, life sciences, biology, rangeland management, agricultural studies, or conservation. Although postsecondary degrees are required for some positions, formal training is not necessarily a requirement for all positions related to outdoor education. Many individuals have a love of the outdoors and have acquired specialty knowledge through self-guided education, or they have learned information while on the job or through internships.

Career Titles Outdoor Educator Park Employee Conservation Education Forester
Education Requirements Varies; some positions may require a background in teaching or outdoor education; on-the-job training is also typically required Some postsecondary education or a degree Bachelor's degree
Other Requirements CPR and safety training typically required; also Wilderness First Responder certification often needed Must be able to meet physical demands of the job Mandatory licensing or registration in some states; in addition, voluntary certification is available
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028)* 8% (recreational workers) 4% (conservation scientists) 1% (foresters)
Median Salary (2018)* $25,060 (recreational workers) $61,310 (conservation scientists) $61,410 (foresters)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Options

Outdoor educators work with students of all ages and demographics to deliver up-to-date information about environmental protection, endangered species, and other regional anomalies. Parks employees, such as park rangers or park naturalists, share their knowledge with visitors and they also enforce guidelines within the region. Although workers may focus on providing environmental education to visitors and students, these professionals often have other job duties and responsibilities.

Outdoor Educator

Outdoor educators can work in a variety of settings. They may lead excursions for adventure crews or be employed by more conventional schools. Often they work with a specific demographic, such as elementary students, senior citizens, or at-risk youth. Instructors typically lead groups on excursions. Trips may be day-long or more extensive, sometimes lasting for months over a school semester. Excursions can take place at local venues such as parks or open spaces, or they may involve travel to distant locations.

Instructors in outdoor education help to create the curriculum for their courses. Courses in general often focus on leadership skills and team building. They can also involve a variety of adventurous tasks in remote locations. Adventure courses may feature sailing and kayaking, backpacking, rock climbing, or wilderness medicine. Local courses may center on flora and fauna education.

Educational requirements for outdoor educators vary based on setting. Nearly all positions require some level of on-the-job training. Instructors will be immersed in the settings where they plan to teach and educated on student management, advanced outdoor skills, and more. Instructors working in the field often need CPR and Wilderness First Responder certification. Additional safety training may be required. Some positions may require an educational background in teaching or outdoor education.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) identifies outdoor educators as recreational workers. According to their job growth projections for the 2018-2028 decade, the BLS states that open positions for recreational workers in general would increase by 8%, which is faster than the average of all jobs. As of 2018, salary statistics reported by the BLS indicated that recreational workers earned a median salary of $25,060. Note that many positions in this field are part-time or seasonal, which may explain the salary rate.

Park Employee

Park guides and visitor assistants often have backgrounds in environmental studies, biology, forestry, or other related areas. They are responsible for serving park visitors by providing education and enforcing park guidelines. They may greet visitors and collect fees at the park entrance or carry out tasks throughout the park. At nature centers and campgrounds, employees can give informational talks and provide guidance to visitors.

Park employees are generally required to have some education beyond high school. In national parks, guides and visitor assistants often must have one year of relevant experience, two years of relevant education above a high school diploma or some combination of both. They must also be able to meet the physical demands of the job and work in a variety of settings.

The BLS does not have specific career projections for park employees; however, O*NET Online links these professionals with conservation scientists, and the BLS predicted that open positions for conservation scientists would grow by 4% during the 2018-2028 decade, which is slower than the national average. These professionals were noted by the BLS to have earned a median annual salary of $61,310. Note that most conservation scientists have bachelor's degrees or higher, which might explain their rate of income. Those with less formal training and experience cannot expect to earn the same salary. As a matter of comparison, in September 2019 reported that park rangers earned a median annual salary of $39,780.

Conservation Education Forester

As foresters, conservation education foresters provide training to other educators about such topics as land management, tree replanting, tree harvesting, and environmentally safe timber removal processes. These professionals may also teach directly to students. Conservation education foresters may dedicate all of their time to teaching educators and students about conservation, but they may also work full-time as foresters and then allocate some of their time to conservation education.

It is fairly common for foresters to hold bachelor's degrees in their field. Individuals who want to become outdoor educators as well as foresters may consider taking coursework related to teaching. Internships at national parks may also provide teaching experience and training. Fewer than 20 states have a mandatory licensing or registration process for foresters. Eligibility for licensure or registration may include having work experience in the industry and meeting the necessary education requirements. Several trade organizations offer certification programs, however certification is not mandatory.

During the 2018-2028 decade, the BLS predicted that the rate of growth for foresters would be slower than average at 1%. Forested regions owned by the state or federal government are expected to employ the most workers. Foresters who have received training in fire prevention may have better job prospects, since fire containment and prevention is a major issue for professionals in this industry. In 2018, the median annual salary received by foresters was $61,410, per BLS data.

To summarize, the salary and job prospects vary quite a bit depending on the field in which an outdoor educator works. Those employed in scientific roles may need to earn a bachelor's degree and meet licensing requirements, while others may learn on the job.

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