Outdoor Ed Director Brings Diverse Experience plus Academic Background

Gaby Pilson is calm, firm, and exudes a non-anxious confidence that says, "You can trust me"—exactly the qualities parents want in the person leading students on a backpacking trip in the Joshua Tree desert, a rock-climbing expedition in mountains of Yosemite, or a canoe trip down the Colorado River.

In the history of Dunn's long-standing program, Gaby Pilson is only the third person to serve as Director of Outdoor Education, and she brings both hands-on experience in the wilderness and a firm academic foundation to the role. She spent the last year completing coursework in the Masters in Outdoor Education program at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland—regarded as one of the top such programs in the world—and is beginning the process of writing her masters' thesis to finish that degree. But her interest in leading outdoor experiences started much earlier in her life.

In high school, Gaby was a competitive hockey player and  attended a boarding school in Lake Placid, New York, to focus on the sport. She quit hockey due to injuries, so when she arrived at Hamilton College in New York, she jumped into—and quickly distinguished herself—in the school's nationally renowned outdoor leadership program.

She majored in philosophy at Hamilton, but she spent her extracurricular time leading outdoor activities. As a student, she managed the college's climbing wall and was the only student allowed to lead ice climbing trips for the school. During her college years, she also taught at SOLO, the oldest wilderness medicine school in the nation, and was a member of her town's volunteer ambulance corps. And at age 19, she began working as a wilderness guide in Alaska. 

And when she's not leading expeditions, she's writing about her work. She is publishes regularly on the travel site Trip101.com, The Adventure Lab, and The Climbing Guy, among other online publications. 

Even though Gaby has only been on the Dunn campus since August, she already has big plans for the future of Dunn's program.

"Outdoor education involves personal and social development, and we'll continue that focus at Dunn," she says. "But these trips and experiences should also be extensions of the classroom, where students can be scientists, historians, artists, and writers out in nature."

In coming years, she plans to work with faculty to make outdoor education trips an extension of the classroom, so that the program is more seamlessly integrated into the whole student, experiential approach to teaching and learning that Dunn is known for.

"Think about Yosemite," she says. "There's not only the natural landscape to explore, but also literary history with John Muir, native history that goes back 20,000 years, current issues in land management, artistic history ... there are just so many ways to make good use of our time in a place like that."

"And as a result, students will naturally be more engaged, both in the classroom and on OE trips," she adds.

But first things first, she says. "We've got plans for the future, but this year we're working to upgrade equipment and offer more options for students on several of the trips," she says. 

Many of the excursions will be similar to those in recent years. Seniors will head to the Sequoia National Forest in the southern Sierras for a basecamp experience that includes orienteering, rock climbing, river rafting, a 12-mile challenge hike, and a solo experience. Juniors will travel to Joshua Tree National Park for a week of backpacking in the beautiful back country of the Mojave Desert, as they have in years past. And the freshman class will head to the coast for backpacking, climbing, and sea kayaking, using Morro Bay State Park as home base for the week.

In a major change from the past, Sophomores can choose their own adventure from five options: back-packing on Mt. Whitney 
(tallest mountain in California); canoeing on the Colorado River; back-packing in Yosemite; day-hiking in Yosemite; and a week in Mammoth to hike, bike, and climb.

Gaby will also support Middle School faculty as they continue to lead excursions to the Malibu Coast (6th grade), Pinnacles National Park (7th grade) and Joshua Tree (8th grade).

"The learning outcomes for this year are for younger students to understand how to take on more responsibility for themselves and for older students to learn better communication and collaboration," she says. 

"And of course, the ultimate goal is for everyone to have a great time!" 


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