Our Curriculum

Our curriculum includes the following:

Core Courses, required for all students, are designed around environmental themes, include many outdoor activities, and are often integrated with one another.

Optional Courses include continuity courses that keep students on track with sending school curricula in the skill-based disciplines of math and Spanish, as well as other electives that students may take to enhance their Conserve School experience. Students have the option of taking one or two optional courses during their semester. Elective options may differ from semester to semester.

Core Courses

Science: AP Environmental Science

In this required course, students will complete all of the requirements of a year-long AP Environmental Science course. Students will study key environmental issues and problems and investigate solutions that lead to sustainability, locally and globally. They will identify environmental problems, investigate their causes, examine from many perspectives the controversies raised by these problems, and make recommendations for positive action. They will study the environment in an interdisciplinary way, incorporating biology, chemistry, and geology with respect to history, economics, politics, and ethics. They will investigate the relationships between culture, sustainability, and interrelations in ecosystems. They will learn about biodiversity, pollution, waste management, toxicology, population dynamics, and the limits and renewability of natural resources.

Conserve School's academic schedule is designed to provide long blocks of time for science classes to utilize our 1,200-acre campus for hands-on problem-solving and research-based learning. This course incorporates field studies, laboratory exercises, and lectures that guide students to explore the relationships between different components of the environment, as well as human interactions with this system.

The ample time afforded this class also creates opportunities for students to investigate environmental science topics of particular relevance to our Northwoods setting. Topics highlighted in the course will include prairie restoration, identification and control of exotic species, identification of wildlife, the effects of overbrowsing by deer, the wolf management controversy, forest management, and organic horticulture.

Students enrolled in the fall semester are encouraged to take the AP Environmental Science exam in the spring at their sending school. Students enrolled in the spring semester will take the AP exam at Conserve School, at no additional cost, in May.

To satisfy prerequisites for this course, successful applicants to Conserve School must demonstrate that they have passed high school biology and basic algebra.

English: Am Lit and the Land

This required English course covers the standard academic skills addressed in upper-level college-preparatory high school English courses, with an emphasis on literature and writing assignments related to environmental themes. The course emphasizes literary appreciation and analysis, composition skills, and persuasive speaking and writing.

Reading John Muir in a Tree

The human relationship to the land has long been one of the cornerstones of American literature. Our landscape shapes who we are, what we think, and how we relate to the world around us. In this advanced level course we will look at how authors from Robert Frost to Terry Tempest Williams, from Jack London to Jon Krakauer have used wild lands as a setting, as a character, as a symbol, and as a cause. Students will study how others – from Thoreau to modern-day nature writers – have used the power of their pen to speak to the evolving American relationship to nature.

Going one step further, this course also instructs students in writing, speaking and other communication skills allowing them to advocate for their own environmental beliefs, challenging them to add their own voices to the long tradition of speaking for the land.

History: Exploration in America

This required history course covers the standard academic skills addressed in junior and senior level college-preparatory high school history courses, with an emphasis on US historical events and analysis related to environmental themes.

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This course is designed to engage students’ hearts, minds, bodies, and imaginations in the pursuit of historical understanding by blending three components:

  1. Leadership studies, which impress the students with the courage, creativity, and ingenuity of major historical figures from the American past.
  2. Challenging, thought-provoking non-fiction articles and books on U.S. history, which, like one of the texts featured in this course, Undaunted Courage, are written for an educated adult audience, and have been best sellers and award winners.
  3. Hands-on activities like map-making or orienteering, which help students imagine themselves as American leaders and explorers, develop empathy for Americans from different eras, regions, and ethnicity, and expand their understanding of their own experiences through insights drawn from their study of the American past.

Physical Education: Outdoor Skills

In this course, students are introduced to a full complement of challenging and enjoyable outdoor activities, designed to increase their comfort in the outdoors, introduce them to life-long outdoor pursuits, and provide them with opportunities to enjoy the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Conserve School encourages human-powered activities, following Leave No Trace principles. Conserve’s Lowenwood campus provides an ideal setting to learn how to canoe, kayak, Nordic ski, snowshoe, ice skate, and mountain bike. This course includes instruction in backcountry travel and living skills, including campsite selection and preparation, fire building, shelter building, backpacking, backcountry cooking and sanitation, and backcountry health and safety.

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The Outdoor Skills course includes time to prepare for a multi-day backcountry camping excursion and a two-night solo camping experience. Read more about these outdoor exploration experiences here.

Students receive physical education credit for their successful completion of the Outdoor Skills course, which includes participation in the multi-day wilderness trip, and the solo camping experience.


This required course blends sustainability education, service learning, and college/career preparations. In this course, students develop a digital portfolio to increase their self-knowledge through reflection, and to showcase to a wide audience their achievements and growth as students and environmental stewards. The e-portfolio features the school work and activities that have been most meaningful to a student, and that have contributed the most to their growth. Students also research and investigate conservation-related post-secondary education and career paths, and develop the skills to continue this investigation on their own. Students’ research is enhanced by their interaction with local experts in environmental professions who have been invited to speak with students about their educational and career paths.

This course provides opportunities for students to collaborate with Conserve School staff members to engage in hands-on, real-world service learning projects. Through their participation in these stewardship projects, students demonstrate a commitment and responsibility to community, and an interest in serving others. Informed by their personal reflections, their research, and their service learning experience, students, with the coaching of their teachers, develop concrete plans for practicing stewardship in their local communities upon their return home.

Optional Courses


Conserve School provides direct instruction in Spanish. Students practice the four basic skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. As students learn languages and cultures, they increase their awareness of the environmental, ethical, and technological issues facing the world today.

Three flexible levels (no lower than Spanish II) are available. These courses cover the standard academic skills and topics addressed in typical upper-level college-preparatory modern language courses. Sending school teachers fill out detailed questionnaires to help Conserve School teachers tailor the curriculum so that students are able to re-join their sending school classes with ease.

Students studying other languages have a variety of options:

  1. Students may choose to take a break from language studies while at Conserve School. To maintain continuity in their language studies, these students may consider enrolling in a summer language course, or in a summer language immersion experience, such as those offered by Concordia Language Villages.
  2. Students may study long-distance with a teacher from their sending school.
  3. Students may continue language study on-line, at additional expense. Students enrolled in an on-line course will be required to use an elective block to work on their on-line course.


Diverse Backgrounds

One of the advantages of a semester school is that students get to live, learn, and play with other young adults from across the country. Conserve School recruits juniors and advanced sophomores who have demonstrated academic success in public and private schools and through a variety of homeschooling approaches. While these students have all been successful learners, they have also each had widely varying types of academic preparation. This diversity of preparation is often an advantage, as it broadens the base of knowledge that the class as a whole brings to discussions in English, history, and environmental science. However, for those students choosing to continue their math studies at Conserve School, the diversity creates special challenges.

Individualized Approach

Conserve School uses the computer based individualized Assessment and LEarning in Knowledge Spaces (ALEKS) system to provide each student with a course of studies that meets their individual needs and the expectations of their sending school. The ALEKS website describes the program as:

“… the new way to learn math on the World-Wide-Web. By knowing exactly which math concepts the student has mastered, which are shaky, and which are new but within reach, ALEKS enables the student to work on those concepts the student is most ready to learn. ALEKS is a full-time automated tutor, including explanations, practice and feedback.”

ALEKS begins with a comprehensive assessment to determine what each student has already mastered and what each student is ready to learn next. Based on assessment results, students are presented with choices of what to learn next. This process continues until the entire curriculum is mastered.

As students work through the course, they can select among a range of topics. The topic list is completely individualized – and shows only those topics for which the student has already mastered all the prerequisites. Students are more successful because they are ready to learn the topic. Success leads to increased confidence and self-esteem. ALEKS also fosters independent learning by providing multiple explanations and solutions.

Students are assessed on what they have learned during the semester, with the expectation that all students will progress at least one semester in their mathematical understanding. That means that students who start farther along will be expected to go farther, while students who began with less preparation will not be expected to go as far. All students will have access to ALEKS for at least one month after the end of the semester, so students who wish to go further may do so.

Mathematics Courses Offered

Conserve School offers mathematical instruction at two levels:

    • Algebra II (sometimes called Advanced Algebra)
    • Pre-Calculus

Already Taking ALEKS or Online Math?

Students who are enrolled in ALEKS through their school or homeschool have the option of continuing with that subscription while attending Conserve School. If this option is selected, the student’s work will continue to be evaluated by the sending school or homeschool instructor. Conserve School will schedule the student into a math block, and the Conserve School Mathematics Lab Teacher will be available to assist the student.

Students who need a math course that Conserve School does not offer, such as Calculus or geometry, will have to consider other options, including online courses.


Earth Art

This course focuses on creating art with and within the natural world. Students venture outside during any season to interact with the weather and the landscape and discover more about their own relationship to that world. While much of the class will take place outside, some activities will go on in the art room. The class will be a grand adventure in building with nature, printmaking, cordage making, weaving, and recycling cast-off objects while looking at how indigenous cultures around the world make toys and useful tools from recycled materials. Prepare to examine the world and come to understand your own connection to that ‘terra firma’ while you develop your resourcefulness!

Drawn to Nature

This course explores inner and outer landscapes. Initially students learn basic drawing strategies and then practice them throughout the semester. An essential part of the class is to keep and develop an illustrated nature journal. Through the reflective process of considering this wild and startling Northwoods environment as well as the Conserve School campus, students practice drawing, painting and calligraphy as they document their lives in this place where they live. Basic design elements of line, value, color, shape, pattern and texture are covered while exploring a variety of drawing and painting media. Subject matter stem from the natural world and projects encompass botanical illustration to landscape. During this exciting class students learn to observe and see more clearly in order to draw and to discover more about themselves and the Northern woods and all that lies before them.

Nature Photography

In this course we will look at the power of photography from its creation to today – its role in nature art, the environmental movement, adventure, as well as developing a personal sense of place. The goals of this course include introducing the students to the increasingly important body of work known as Nature Photography in America and around the world. Students will study the history of photography, the mechanics of how a camera operates, the work of influential photographers from historic times to the present, the power of photography in the environmental movement, as well as artistic components such as composition, depth of field, and more. It will challenge students to study both how humans see and how cameras record an image, and give them the tools to convert their vision into a photograph. Each student will build a personal portfolio of photographs – from environmental portraits to macro work to wildlife photography – for display and critique and study the business of publishing and exhibiting photography.

Leadership and Teamwork

This class will examine noteworthy historical and contemporary examples of leadership and teamwork in challenging environments. We will study teams and leaders admired for their courage and ultimate success when faced with their “moment of truth,” for example, mountaineering legend Arlene Blum’s all-woman team, the first American group to summit Annapurna, as well as teams and leaders remembered for their tragic failures. This class poses the question, “What does it takes to excel as a leader or team member in a high stakes setting -- environmental conflicts, political transformation, outdoor expeditions, and other high-pressure, high-uncertainty situations?” Examples of topics addressed include: in-the-field decision-making, team morale building, the importance of communication, the merits of planning versus spontaneity, and balancing courage and exhilaration with caution and safety. Students should expect to spend significant portions of the class outdoors on the Conserve School campus.

Online Courses

In order to fulfill a sending school requirement or pursue an academic interest not addressed by Conserve School’s program, students may be allowed to enroll in one online course while attending Conserve School. Time will be set aside in one elective block for a student to work on their online course, leaving room for only one other elective course. Conserve School will not place the online course on the Conserve School transcript. Families are expected to cover the cost of the online course. The online school should report the student’s grade directly to the sending school. Families should be sure to discuss the online course with the sending school counselor prior to enrolling the student in the course, in order to make sure that the sending school will accept the online school’s credits.

Online courses are independent and they require a great deal of self-discipline and academic motivation. Conserve School does not provide instruction for online courses, and only provides limited support for online courses. Our experience has shown that even high-performing students can struggle with the online format. Students at Conserve School typically want to spend as much time as possible out-of-doors, taking advantage of extracurricular opportunities, so in this setting an online course can be particularly difficult to focus on. As such, we recommend that students work with parents and their school counselor to consider other options for meeting a specific academic requirement, such as taking a class before or after they attend Conserve, or in summer school.

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