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Auburn University’s Degree in Parks and Recreation Prepares Leaders for Growing Field

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Auburn University’s Kreher Preserve and Nature Center will be a valuable resource for students pursuing the university’s new bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation management. (contributed)

By Jessica Nelson | Auburn University

Auburn University’s College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment (CFWE) is launching the state’s first parks and recreation management undergraduate degree program to prepare students to lead an industry that is increasingly recognized as vital to well-being, community growth and diversification.

Faculty in the CFWE developed the new major to address a growing demand for parks and recreation professionals.

“One of the things that distinguishes this program from similar majors at other regional universities is a focus on recreation access and human health, which are critical issues for Alabama and major topics in the field,” said Wayde Morse, professor of conservation social sciences and faculty lead of the new major.

Addressing health and access

Being outdoors is a vital component of human health, both mental and physical, Morse said – not only the well-known benefits of being active and a healthy dose of vitamin D, but also the relaxation and de-stressing effects.

However, some communities have fewer opportunities for outdoor recreation, further widening the health differences between populations. “So this was one of the themes we tried to build on,” Morse said. “How can our program address the issue of increasing access to outdoor recreation?”

With coursework on health and access, the program hopes to address these issues specific to Alabama but applicable to many areas nationwide.

Recreational opportunities not only benefit the individual; there are systemic ripple effects for communities, governments, and society at large.

“In protecting a park, you’re protecting the ecosystem services that land provides,” Morse said. “Water quality, climate, biodiversity, and often social and cultural attributes are also provided as you visit sites like Gulf State Park or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” He said recreation can also bring in visitors, along with tourism dollars, and help communities attract more employers and industries.

Driving opportunity       

Outdoor recreation is big business. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the outdoor recreation economy represented almost 2% of the total U.S. GDP in 2021. Local parks and recreation agencies supported more than 4.3 million jobs in 2019.

From 2012 to 2022, the Alabama Department of Labor reported a 13.7% increase in the number of recreational workers’ jobs, which is projected to increase by another 10% over the next 10 years. With this growth in high-quality outdoor recreation opportunities, Alabama is anticipated to attract more high-tech and other industries.

“We are making significant investments throughout our state parks, including improving campgrounds and adding mountain biking trails, kayak launches, and infrastructure. These enhancements are attracting new visitors and creating an increased need across the state for trained personnel to operate and manage these properties,” said Matthew Capps, deputy director of Alabama State Parks.

In recognition of the role of outdoor recreation in attracting new industries, the Innovate Alabama Commission recently established the Council on Outdoor Recreation to focus on expanding these opportunities statewide. Auburn’s new degree will provide professional workforce training to capitalize on this movement.

Auburn faculty Wayde Morse and Allie McCreary will lead the university’s new parks and recreation management major. Here they are shown at the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center, in Auburn, an outreach facility of the college that will be a location for student internships and experiential learning. (contributed)

Experiential learning at work

The CFWE is well known for the experiential learning opportunities it offers students within its core majors, which will also be a foundational pillar of the new parks and recreation management degree.

“To expand on the curriculum, program leaders are working with local and county governments, state and national parks, and organizations like YMCA summer camps to create internship opportunities, but many opportunities are available in Auburn and even within the college itself, such as within the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center,” said Todd Steury, CFWE’s associate dean of academic affairs.

Steury said these experiences will enhance the career readiness of students who will benefit professionally from the real-world situations they encounter.

“A lot of this hands-on learning will be service-based,” said McCreary, assistant professor of parks and recreation. “Our students will be engaging with organizations in the community to create and implement programs that connect people in the region to recreation resources and opportunities.”

Similar to other CFWE majors, the curriculum will feature an immersive summer experience that may be held at one of the college’s properties, such as the recently gifted Crooked Oaks, the former homestead of Auburn football coach Pat Dye. It will expose students to outdoor skills like recreation activity programming and wilderness exploration, emphasizing program themes of health and accessibility.

In addition to regular coursework, students will earn micro-credentials in subjects like wilderness first aid, Leave No Trace, adventure guiding, trail building, interpretation, environmental education, camping essentials, and ropes courses. “These classes teach hands-on skills, but they’re also about team building,” Morse said. “They are often the classes that students remember long after graduation.”

Crooked Oaks is a 415-acre property in Notasulga recently gifted to Auburn University’s College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment. The former homestead of Auburn football coach Pat Dye, the farm is the most recent addition to the college’s experiential learning laboratories that will be available to students pursuing the new parks and recreation major. (contributed)

One degree, two career paths

Students may begin enrolling in the major in the spring 2024 semester, with options to specialize in either nature-based park and recreation management (with state and national parks, forests, and other public lands) or community-based parks and recreation.

One of the textbooks that will be used across courses is published by the National Recreation and Park Association, with its core competencies built into the coursework. The integration of these competencies will prepare graduates to sit for a national exam to become a Certified Park and Recreation Professional by the end of their first year of employment.

After graduation, students can look forward to plentiful career opportunities with public agencies or private industry. Community parks and recreation professionals will manage facilities; run programming in recreation centers, parks, trails, and sports facilities; and plan public events like festivals, parades, farmers markets, and races.

Graduates of the nature-based concentration will be prepared to help administer public and private recreation lands like state and national parks, forests, reservoirs, and refuges; manage trails, campgrounds, and visitor centers; and offer interpretation and adventure programs and guiding.

“The diverse resources in Auburn and around the state provide the ideal training ground for this field of study,” said Janaki Alavalapati, the Emmett F. Thompson Dean of the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment. “The college is uniquely prepared to provide students and employers a level of career preparedness unrivaled by other programs in the country.”

The new parks and recreation management bachelor’s degree was approved by Auburn University’s Board of Trustees last year and approved by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education in December.

For more information about the degree, visit auburn.edu/cfwe or contact the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment’s Office of Student Services at workingwithnature@auburn.edu.

This story previously appeared on Auburn University’s website.