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Guardian Adventures: Where Context is King

Guest Blog Post written by Roberta Martone, writer at FIRST Global Robotics

In this week’s blog post, we’ll dive into a recent interview with Meghan Gardner, our fearless founder and CEO here at Guardian Adventures. This year has been filled with growth, change, and gigantic leaps for the Guardians. We’ve gone global with a cruise line, we’ve stacked our staff with incredible young professionals, and we’ve celebrated a landmark twenty years of adventuring. With all of this in mind, we take a look at what makes us us, and what got us here in the first place…

Research shows that 80 percent of all learning, whether you’re a child or an adult, is acquired through informal methods. Informal Education is defined as the delivery of learning opportunities outside of a formal learning environment (such as schools and certification programs). Those who provide informal education also know that a primary benefit of the practice is that it can tap into our desire to be emotionally engaged with what we’re trying to learn.

One person who is very familiar with this concept is Meghan Gardner, Founder, and CEO of Guardian Adventures, an educational organization that provides immersive story-based activities and events for STEM/STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics).

While she agrees there are certainly elements of rote memorization which are important when it comes to traditional education, Gardner also thinks schools need to adopt a much more story-based learning approach. “I think formal education has a model that works well for only a percentage of the population. It’s mostly a memorize-and-test model with very little context to the student’s current life. As story-telling animals who have learned through stories since we were living in caves and long before written language, we learn best when provided an immersive story which captures our interest, especially emotional engagement, and provides narrative context.” Gardner adds that our schools’ biggest accomplishment should be to teach students how to learn, and adds they could do this by providing more learning options such as story-based education.

The Adventure—and Learning—Begins Here

Although the organization started in 1999 as a school for martial arts and swordplay, Guardian Adventures has expanded dramatically over the past two decades. While they still offer fencing classes, their main activities involve exciting and intricate stories that require solving mysteries and navigating story challenges while using STEM and STEAM principles.

As well, all of their programs foster the development of critical core values such as honor, courage, and compassion—in addition to important life skills such as team building, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving. Along the way, participants also learn the basics of chemistry, biology, physics, conservation, literature, and language arts.

“Our heroes revel in these living adventures and learn a thing or two in the process. Many activities are designed to promote formal education. For example, our spells are in Latin and other languages waiting to be deciphered. Our potion-making class involves chemistry lessons, and our participants learn about environmental science while hiking the woods near our outdoor camp. Each of these subjects encourages the student to consider school and other formal education environments as a resource for excelling in the adventure.” Exploring different cultures is another focus of the Guardian Adventures programs. To that end, the organization has worked with The Center for Arabic Culture, Arawak and Abenaki Native American cultural educators, as well as Bulgarian, Japanese, and Moroccan cultural educators.

Today Guardian Adventures creates and conducts programs, events, camps, and consultations for individuals and corporations around the country and indeed around the world. In fact, in recent years, its reach has expanded to a global audience and now provides consulting and curriculum development for a number of companies including Fortune 500 in the USA and Ed-tech companies in Asia.

STEM and STEAM Design For All

Gardner admits they’ve come a long way from the early days when she conducted martial arts classes in the basement of a local recreation center (hence the original corporate name, Guard Up, Inc.). Gardner, who is also a guest lecturer at The Harvard Graduate School of Education, says she adopted the name Guardian Adventures to better reflect their mission as a pre-eminent source and curator of STEM and STEAM story-based informal education. “We decided to change our name as a way to keep a nod to our past while also recognizing our present and future.”

Today, Guardian Adventures services span a wide breadth of activities, programs, and events at their brick and mortar facility located in Burlington, MA. The programs are varied and include classes, summer and school break camps, birthday parties, and celebrations for other milestone events. Gardner adds that Guardian Adventures also provides offsite turnkey programs for client conferences, libraries, and museums. The organization offers a long list of services for companies that wish to conduct their own custom adventure activities, including:

  • Consulting
  • Curriculum design
  • Plot development
  • Script-writing
  • Staff training
  • Custom costuming and props
  • Video and sound production services
  • And the ability to beta test and workshop new games.

As well, for those in the corporate world, Guardian Adventures designs and conducts retreats that promise to revive, reconnect, and bond adult attendees.

The Power of Storytelling

“Our participants have the chance to learn about historical figures (like Semiramis, Queen of the Assyrian Empire in 811 BCE), mythological beings (like Tianlong, a Chinese Dragon), or characters from literature (such as Oberon from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) by interacting with our professional actors who portray them,” says Gardner, who adds that her staff members heavily research these characters and rely on our cultural educators for as much of an accurate portrayal as possible. “We all know that stories are one of the best vehicles for teaching since they capture our attention, but interactive stories spark our creativity and inspire our dedication.”

Indeed, at its core, Guardian Adventures is all about the storytelling. Gardner recalls how years ago bedtime hour with her then-young children involved what is now the core of Guardian Adventures. “When my kids were little, I would tell them a bedtime story in which they were the heroes. I would present them with a situation then ask how they might resolve that situation. That’s where their imagination came in. As we made up the next part of the story, I began to see this was a powerful way to assess where my kids were in their decision-making skills, and also was able to witness how the story inspired them to learn.”

Gardner says once she realized the power of interactive storytelling with her kids, the next logical step was to transfer this concept from her home base to her company. So, she hired a handful of teachers who were familiar with “Live Action Role Play,” (LARP), which could be applied to Guardian Adventure’s interactive story-based events. “We developed a program many kids couldn’t find anywhere else—a place where learning was exciting and engaging as well as physically active (using foam swords, NERF blasters, costumes and props). It wasn’t long before the story-based adventures far outgrew the martial arts program, and so I adjusted the company’s emphasis towards these adventures.”

The “Story” Continues: Expanding the Boundaries For the Future

What’s ahead for the future? A lot, says the CEO, who adds that in these past twenty years they’ve just scratched the surface. Future plans include the purchase of a much larger building that will allow them to accommodate the increasing demand for their programs, as well as for workshops and space to playtest other company’s games and events. They are also in hiring mode, looking for educators who want to teach in a highly creative and dynamic way.

Want to get hired at Guardian Adventures? You most likely need a background in the theater arts field, coupled with an undergraduate teaching degree or a Masters of Education. The current staff is made up of more than 20 professionals who specialize in story writing, production design, acting, and secondary education.

In addition, Guardian Adventures plans to further augment their international consulting focus. In the past, they partnered with professors from Harvard Graduate School of Education to create a Mission to Mars summer camp for ST Unitas, a large tech-ed organization in Asia and the parent company of The Princeton Review. During the camp, attendees spent a week studying at Harvard University, then applied their lessons during an interactive STEM-based Mars adventure at Guardian Adventures in Burlington.

Gardner says Guardian Adventures continues to be contracted by large and small corporations alike, including Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, who now runs their STEM adventures onboard the Oasis of the Seas, the 4th largest cruise ship in the world. “Our company is growing quickly, and we would like to add more offerings to meet the demand and ever-changing needs of our clients while staying on the cutting edge of both effective education and exciting adventures.

Our mission is to inspire lifelong learners who want to make a difference in the world. Because if there is one thing this world could use more of, it’s leaders who are hungry to learn and eager to solve the problems facing humanity.”

Author: Roberta Martone, writer at FIRST Global Robotics

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