Aven Mckay is studying geography and science – but she’s also learning about rare plants and tracking wildlife.

“We learned about where the animals are going so we can follow tracks,” says the 13-year-old. “And sometime we learn if you feel the track you might know where the animal is going because of how warm it is.”

Mckay is a Grade 8 student in Canmore, Alta.’s Lynx Education program.

Students study math and English online but the rest of their classwork is outside – with the Rocky Mountains as their campus.

“We are doing social studies and science, phys-ed and health outside,” says Melanie Guest, the program’s lone teacher. “A lot of the science kind of fits with being outside. If you are talking about thermodynamics and insulation they are actually feeling that.”

The people behind the program had hoped to eventually develop a curriculum that combined indoor and outdoor learning, but the pandemic accelerated that.

This project came together just three weeks before the school year started.

“It came from parents and what they felt their families and kids needed,” says Sunil Mattu, the executive director of Lynx Education. “COVID can be considered a mechanism for change, because it’s been forced upon us. Sometimes it’s difficult to move from where we’ve always been.”

The school does have its challenges – mainly when it comes to Alberta’s winter weather.

A snow squall through the “classroom” already cancelled one day of learning so far.

But the program also has advantages other schools dealing with a pandemic don’t.

“While we are outside we don’t have to wear masks,” says Guest. ”The small cohort size means a little less stress on the families about COVID and generally, being outside is a great way to stay healthy.”

Ava Bohn is 12 years old and is adjusting to school outside a classroom. She says so far, she prefers it.

“I just like learning different things and I really like building things,” says Bohn, as the students put up a tarp between trees, which will act as a windbreak while the take notes on their lessons.

“I do not miss having to fidget with things. Now that I’ve gotten more exercise, I don’t have to fidget as much.”

Class will stay in session all year, even as the weather makes that more challenging.

Already, staff and students say even if the pandemic situation improves by next year, they want this school to come back.