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Breaking the status quo: USAFA educator develops program based on mountaineering, special ops background

Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, right, Center for Character and Leadership Development director for experiential education programs and honor education, speaks with cadets Aug. 7, 2017, at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo. Marshall is currently developing a summer program that encourages cadets to learn and overcome challenges, risk, and failure that can't be replicated in a classroom via outdoor experiences. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, right, Center for Character and Leadership Development director for experiential education programs and honor education, speaks with cadets Aug. 7, 2017, at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo. Marshall is currently developing a summer program that encourages cadets to learn and overcome challenges, risk and failure that can't be replicated in a classroom via outdoor experiences. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, left, Center for Character and Leadership Development director for experiential education programs and honor education, poses for a photo with the Air Force flag May 20, 2013, at the summit of Mt. Everest. Marshall was one of the primary leads for the Air Force Seven Summits team that traveled the world and climbed the highest peaks on each continent. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, left, Center for Character and Leadership Development director for experiential education programs and honor education, poses for a photo with the Air Force flag May 20, 2013, at the summit of Mt. Everest. Marshall was one of the primary leads for the Air Force Seven Summits team that traveled the world and climbed the highest peaks on each continent. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, Center for Character and Leadership Develop director for experiential education programs and honor education, poses for a photo during one of his many mountaineering expeditions. Marshall is a world-class mountaineer, having led climbs of the highest peak on each continent, including Mt. Everest. (Photo by Ryan Hall)

Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, Center for Character and Leadership Develop director for experiential education programs and honor education, poses for a photo during one of his many mountaineering expeditions. Marshall is a world-class mountaineer, having led climbs of the highest peak on each continent, including Mt. Everest. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS) -- If you told Lt. Col. Rob Marshall leadership starts at the top, he’d take you literally.

Part mountaineer, part special operations pilot, he’s spent a lot of time living his life at high altitudes.

Marshall is by no means the casual adventurer, he’s a world-class mountaineer, having led climbs of the highest peak on each continent, including Mount Everest, and ferried special operators in and out of war zones as a CV-22 Osprey pilot.

These days, the 2001 Academy graduate is on the forefront of adventure-based experiential learning at the Air Force Academy. He’s in the early stages of developing a summer program that encourages cadets to learn and overcome challenges, risk and failure that can’t be replicated in a classroom via outdoor experiences.

“The greatest threat to America is following the status quo,” said Marshall, U.S. Air Force Academy Center for Character and Leadership Development director for experiential education programs and honor education. “It inhibits innovation.”

His vision for the program stems from a career he calls “unconventional.”

“In a classroom, we mainly learn through reading, discussion, watching and listening,” Marshall said. “Experiential learning involves applying the concepts learned in a classroom - often outdoors - experimenting with them and sometimes failing.”

Controlled environments can limit learning and it’s easy to develop tunnel vision as an Academy cadet, Marshall said.

“There’s not a single cadet here who isn’t highly intelligent, but how far have they been tested?” he said. “Learning with unpredictability is essential and that’s what Mother Nature provides.”

There’s no one way to do anything

Marshall vibrates with innovation and ideas. He’s a mixture of a mad scientist and athlete, and the walls of his office are covered with floor to ceiling whiteboards dotted with his adventure-based notes.

He’s an educational pioneer who admits to sometimes needing to taper his vision into something achievable, but recognizes the need to push cadets to break through their personal limits.

Although in the nascent stage, Marshall plans to add 10 days onto the Academy’s Expeditionary Survival Training. The program would include a 12-hour hike, a 24-hour hike and a 36-hour adventure race in the wilderness west of the Academy. It’s slated to be implemented this summer and involve the Cadet Wing’s 1,200 sophomore-year cadets with support from approximately 250 junior and senior cadets.

“At the end of each experience, cadets will debrief and reflect upon what they learned,” Marshall said. “This way the experience is personalized and they can then try it again and again, each time learning something new and hopefully improving their results.”

The CCLD department head, Col. Mark Anarumo, said faculty have been completely evolving the way they deliver character education to cadets.

CCLD officials, including Marshall, plan to develop an adventure-based experiential learning foundation at the Academy and start collecting data to empower the Air Force to implement this style of learning across the enterprise.

“We will push them to their personal limits through these programs and test them in ways they would otherwise never experience short of leading in a combat environment,” Anarumo said. “This generation clearly learns differently than any past cohort of young adults.

“Adventure-based experiential learning and similar programs we will be rolling out will close the gap between how we teach and what these future leaders need as they enter a rapidly changing, hyper dynamic world.”

Melding his background as a special operations pilot and mountaineer, Marshall wants to incorporate lessons at the Academy that deal with uncertainty and quick flexibility.

“There is usually only one way to solve things here at the Academy, you need to get an ‘A’,” he said. “The further you get to an ‘A’ the better. But what I always foot stomp to cadets is that there is never one way to accomplish anything. This summer program is an opportunity for cadets to create their own unique strategy to succeed.”

Having witnessed the innovations made by enemy combatants during his time in the special operations community, Marshall stressed the need for Air Force leaders to think outside the box and step out from their comfort zones.

“I believe the number one skill that we have to fight our enemies is innovation and the outdoors requires innovation in abundance as the rules and environment are always changing,” Marshall said. “I want our cadets to realize that when you walk off the beaten path you’re no longer following the status quo and that’s okay, because often the status quo is our enemy.”