School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Erin Mutch: The Shortest Path from Idea to Practice

April, 2017
By Natalia Mukhina

Alumna Erin Mutch

Erin Mutch

“I love it. Let’s do it!” This one-line message came to Erin Mutch from her superintendent at the Thames Valley School Board after she first shared her idea for an experiential learning course for teens. Erin developed this course using her own learning experience from the Queen’s Professional Master of Education (PME) program. “I could tie my master’s courses back to my work as a school board environmental education learning coordinator, and I am  pleased that my project received so much support and is now being offered to students,” says Erin.

The course titled “W.I.L.D.” (Wilderness-based Interdisciplinary Leadership Development) is designed for high school students who have completed Grade 10 by the start of the course. It combines different ways of learning - in-class, online, and in the field - to develop leadership within the context of the history, geography and ecology of Quetico Provincial Park. A seven-day canoe trip will be the capstone of the course. Prior to that, all participants will work collaboratively on planning all aspects of the trip, including the development of a lesson delivered by each student based on their expertise and personal interests. Students will also share their understanding of leadership and collective responsibility to apply those principles on the trip. Post-trip, all participants will communicate their learning outcomes in a digital format.

Queen’s PME, as Erin emphasizes, became a sort of intellectual hobby for her. The program unleashed her creativity and equipped her with the skills and practical tools needed to develop such a complex interdisciplinary project. Arguably more importantly, the PME gave Erin a unique way to reach her educational goals without having to stop working. “The master’s program was fully online. Great option for those like me who have many other responsibilities and need to fit studies into the cracks of the day,” says Erin, a wife and mother of two. “I thought at one point that I should have taken a picture of every location where I worked on my Master’s!” 

When Erin joined the program at Queen’s, she had 12 years of experience as a biology teacher and was ready to embrace the challenge of a new professional role at the school board. “It was a bit overwhelming at times, but I love a challenge,” says Erin. “I liked the online platform which Queen’s used to offer the courses, but most of all I enjoyed seeing so many opportunities to use my new knowledge from the courses in what I do as a professional. Every course that I chose, I managed to tie into what I was doing at work.”

As someone who is passionate about novel learning methods, Erin brought to her master’s studies an idea she had had in mind since childhood. As a teenager, Erin had gone on multiday canoe trips up to Quetico Provincial Park and ended up working there as a trip guide. Interestingly, she decided to be a teacher because she loved working with high school students in that setting.

“I enjoyed teaching in a classroom,” recalls Erin, “but I always love being able to connect students with the community and taking them outside for some experiential learning opportunities. I was looking for a way to offer the same type of trip to students but to connect it to a credit and have students lead the learning and develop themselves through that experience.”

It was a course titled “Connected Learning” that provoked Erin to figure out a way to implement her idea. “The framework of that Queen’s course helped me put the pieces together. It impacted me professionally to give me some rigorous thinking to do with the ideas I already had. I could then properly explain my ideas.”

Erin’s initiative found support from her senior administration team at the school board and also from the Ontario Ministry of Education. She applied for a grant supporting community-connected learning experiences and succeeded. Now, the cost of the course will not be a barrier for any student of Thames Valley. “We can have a diverse group of students. Academically oriented high-achievers and those who may struggle with a traditional model of school will learn from one another and work together. It will challenge them in terms of their leadership and will provide everyone with a different perspective.”

Erin believes that the blended format of the project will reinforce significantly the learning outcomes of the students. “My master’s courses gave me lots of ideas on how to work collaboratively in an online environment,” explains Erin. “E-learning platforms will let us provide this course to students throughout the expansive geography of our school board.”

It is never easy to launch brand-new projects, and Erin pays much tribute to those who helped her give life to such a multi-faceted project. “It is neither a summer school course nor an online course. It is not a traditional box that we currently have in our board. To make this project work, many people were kind to lend their expertise. It is really nice to have their support.”

The program filled up very fast. All 18 enrolled students – the current capacity of the course – have already started their pre-trip training, which means that Erin is in the thick of things again. “I am fortunate to have a supportive family,” she says, laughing. “I’ve been spending almost as much time on this project as I did while doing my masters. We are all supportive of each other’s interests and passions.”