Think Mink: Taking kids back to nature

Andy Mink wants to teach kids how to fail. While that might seem like a questionable goal for a teacher, Mink promises a positive return: They learn how to be better students.

"In the public schools we insulate kids from failure constantly," says Mink, "and I think my goal with all of this was to show them that failure can be a very positive experience. It's a way to develop character."

Mink knows what he's talking about: He was recently named "K-12 Leader of the Year" by the National Society of Experiential Education. The award recognizes his 10-year stint as a middle school history teacher in Orange County, and his time spent creating The Discovery Program, an experiential education program that uses outdoor recreation– rock climbing, clam digging, caving– to make kids better learners.

"It's a matter of giving kids the skills to handle obstacles in life," he says of The Discovery Program and similar experiential teaching techniques. "When you're outdoors, you can point that out in a very dramatic way. You can say, 'Here's the obstacle,' whether it's discomfort or cold or a fear of heights or working with another person." Mink helps his charges bring those lessons back to the classroom.

These days, as director of K-12 outreach with the Virginia Center for Digital History at UVA, the 35-year-old Mink travels the state helping history teachers integrate new technologies and experiential concepts into their classrooms.

"Experiential education isn't just outdoor education," he says. "It's really the idea that you're learning by doing. It doesn't have to be all rock faces and paddles and caves.

"Creating a place in a classroom where kids can direct their learning is something every teacher can do."

For Society president Linda Goff, Mink and the award were a perfect fit.

"We had several well qualified nominations to choose from for this award," says Goff, "but his long-standing dedication and efforts on behalf of his students left him head and shoulders above the other entrants. Our feeling was that this was an award he truly deserved."

And while Mink has no problem stirring up the public education system, he's still settling into the role of award-winning teacher.

"It's a little surreal," he says of the recent honor, "because teaching is the unrecognized profession. It's humbling, and it's wonderful; it's very nice to be recognized."

Andy Mink