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Facilitating Intrinsic Motivation in the Wilderness

Last March, I attended a workshop for outdoor science educators about how to encourage intrinsic motivation in students. I found the presentation (led by Kevin Beals and Emilie Lygren, members of Lawrence Hall of Science’s BEETLES team) to be indicative of what makes the curriculum we use on our BOLD & GOLD backpacking trips so successful. According to Self Determination Theory (originally developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan), people perform best when they are intrinsically motivated, rather than motivated by external factors such as test scores, evaluations, or money. As BEETLES has applied to outdoor science classrooms, Self Determination Theory indicates that the best conditions for intrinsic motivation are those in which participants experience strong feelings of autonomy, relatedness, and competence.


To engage students we must provide experiences in which they feel they get to make their choices and follow their own interests. On BOLD & GOLD trips, each student has the opportunity to be the Leader of the Day (LOD) at least once during the trip. As the trip progresses and instructors have shared more and more leadership and outdoor skills with the students, the teens take on increasing levels of autonomy. By the end of the trip, the LOD is leading the group through decision-making processes and the students are making many, if not all, decisions as a group. What would give students a higher sense of autonomy than deciding amongst themselves where to camp for the night, what to have for dinner, or how to get from point A to point B?

“There are so many wonderful experiences and quotes and realizations that I want you to remember from this trip, but mostly I want you to remember how strong and capable you felt on this trip. Remember how you felt sitting on North Dome like you could do anything, completely at peace with the grime, smell, and grease on your body.” - Ava, Yosemite GOLD, from a letter written to herself

Two GOLD students get the stoves started to cook dinner for the entire group.



Relatedness, in this context, is the idea that students perform better and are more actively engaged when they have positive social connections with others in the group. Kevin and Emilie pointed out that outdoor educators often look to teambuilding activities to solve this problem, but that it can be an inherent component of educational activities rather than a side dish.  During BOLD & GOLD expeditions, ​opportunities for students to connect with each other are such a core component of the program, whether during intentional team building activities, traditions like chow circle (prior to meals), or during courage circles (campfire reflections at the end of the day). Courage circles provide a safe space for students to get personal, open up, and become more comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities. Through all of these opportunities for relatedness, the culture on a BOLD & GOLD trip is a safe space where students can feel comfortable and empowered to learn.

“I know the sights I saw and the places we visited will all merge in my head, but what will stay the same is the feeling of acceptance and belonging.” – Aleesa, Yosemite GOLD

BOLD students share a laugh at 9400 feet.



Research shows that students are more likely to be engaged learners if they feel that they are getting better at something, such as a developing a skill.  ​Skill building is ever present on BOLD & GOLD expeditions, from tent setup to speaking up in front of a group of people, from backcountry navigation to conflict resolution. From goal setting to outdoor cooking, our students feel comfortable learning in the space we provide because they feel a sense of accomplishment as they develop new skills and summit the next peak on the horizon.

 “The skills I have been able to learn in the BOLD/GOLD Program has changed my life outside of the Y. It has made me look at things differently. I have learned more about responsibility and leadership.” – Camper, Desolation Wilderness

Two students embody one of BOLD & GOLD's core competencies: Confidence!


To learn more about the BOLD & GOLD program and sign up for an expedition for next summer, visit


To learn more about the BEETLES project and the incredible work they do, visit To download their guide to Engaging and Managing Students in Outdoor Science, visit You can also view a version of this blog post on their Tales from the Field blog.