SRU offers new ‘challenge’ at expanded outdoor training course


Anna Burtch on the new challenge course

Anna Burtch, a Slippery Rock University senior dual major in geography and park and resource management from Grove City, uses the newly erected challenge course located near the Ski Lodge. The course can be used by a wide variety of University groups with supervised by Campus Recreation staff.

Sept. 12, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — A classroom assignment at Slippery Rock University often involves a group activity, but there's only one place on campus where that activity could mean getting group members to walk across a wooden plank before they swing from a rope -- by the way, did we mention the plank is suspended 30 feet above the ground? Those are just two examples of what students can experience on SRU's recently built challenge course.

"We consider the challenge course a classroom," said Jeffrey Smith, SRU assistant professor of physical and health education, who teaches adventure fitness as part of the physical activity and fitness management program. "Just because it's not bound by walls or it doesn't require computer software, doesn't mean it's not a classroom. It's our outdoor laboratory."

The adrenaline, skills and confidence developed from using the challenge course provide an experience that the safety of a chair, desk and computer keyboard simply cannot.

SRU completed construction of the challenge course this summer. It complements the Leadership Reaction Course that features a high and low ropes course. The new challenge course is located on the northeast side of campus on the edge of a wooded area near the Ski Lodge. The new space is handicap accessible and includes a three-story wooden structure, which features a climbing wall, as well as more than 20 elements and obstacles that are secured and supported by several wooden utility poles.

Although Smith's Outdoor Pursuits and Applied Methodology for Adventure Activities classes will regularly use the course, it is not just for physical and health education classes. Any campus group, student organization or class can reserve the challenge course. Campus Recreation staffers will guide users through the various elements, ranging from basic low-rope maneuvers that nearly anyone can complete, to more advanced elements that would probably challenge SRU's varsity sports teams. The course can also accommodate tasks for people with disabilities and who use wheelchairs.

"This is applicable to all disciplines," said Andy Loue, assistant director for facility operations and outdoor programming in Campus Recreation, who manages the course. "You have to interact with people and you have to deal with adversity in every profession. The challenge course puts you in situations where you can work through different emotions and interactions and learn from them."

During this semester's first two weeks, more than 250 students scaled parts of the new challenge course. Deborah Hutchins, associate professor of parks, conservation and recreational therapy, brought students from her first-year seminar class for recreational therapy to the challenge course last week. Carly Best, a freshman recreational therapy major from Shippenville, was lifted 30 feet into the air by her classmates using a towrope pulley system in a maneuver called "The Flying Squirrel."

"At first I was timid and scared to do any of the activities but my friends and Dr. Hutchins continued to encourage me, so I did the course and faced my fears," Best said. "I felt accomplished and proud of myself. The class learned how to work together, be patient and encouraging. This was such a great experience and I hope that I can do it again."

Students in classes that use the challenge course have the option to participate in all or none of the activities, but Louie said many students are like Best - reluctant at first but who gain confidence once they see their peers go through the course.

"A challenge course is a tool that can be applied to groups and individuals to help them achieve their goals," Loue said. "Those goals can range from recreation and group camaraderie to actual challenges that draw out positive or negative traits of a group that can be discussed to enhance group performance in the future."

Campus Recreation staff, as well as a team of about 10 trained student-workers, lead groups through the challenge course through what is called the Reach Program. The first high- and low-ropes courses at SRU were built in the late 1980s by the Physical and Health Education Department as part of the Reach Program and what became known as the Dr. Helen "Susie" Knierim Leadership Institute. This type of outdoor leadership training facility has changed throughout the years. A first iteration was built on trees but could not be sustained because of tree growth. In 2004, the University built the Leadership Reaction Course modeled after those found at military installations. That facility was maintained by SRU's Leadership Development Center for use by internal and external groups. The LDC will continue to manage the low ropes aspects of the Leadership Reaction Course; however, Campus Recreation now manages the high ropes portion of the LRC, including the zip lining tower, as well as the new challenge course.

High-ropes courses typically require more trained staff and supervision, but the new challenge course is in a contained area about the size of two basketball courts. It features a Saferoller product, which is a continuous belay system where users are hooked in once without transfers between elements. It can be monitored by one or two staff depending on the size of the group.

"The new course is designed in such a way that it doesn't require staff to be positioned throughout the course to supervise it, so a professor can bring a class and still have reasonable risk management protocols in place," Loue said.

Smith said that challenge courses like the one built at SRU have proliferated rapidly across the country, especially by operators of ski resorts who need to find creative ways to attract visitors during months without snow.

Loue also sees growth opportunities for the use of SRU's challenge course. He estimates that at least 30 groups will use the challenge course this semester but many more will follow once they realize the skill-developing benefits.

"Some people have these magical, transformative experiences and some people just do it to have a good time," Loue said. "That can all be achieved (on the challenge course), but these are designed for group development or individual learning."

To schedule a group to use the challenge course, or to inquire about opportunities when individuals can use the course, contact Loue at: 724.738.2883 or

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |