Courtesy of Kaitylin Miller

Cornell offers many unique PE courses, including skiing, caving and scuba diving.

February 20, 2023

Students Explore Caves, Mountains and Beebe Lake in Unique P.E. Offerings

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Every Cornell student must take two physical education courses before they graduate. However, beyond some of the standard courses like swimming and bowling, Cornell also offers unusual physical education courses, including caving, skiing and scuba diving. 

Cornell’s unique physical education classes often allow students to explore new geographic locations and interests. Hannah Denton ’23, a student instructor for Physical Education 1630: Caving, said she enjoys the excitement of venturing into caves around Ithaca.

“We’re in a really inhospitable place for a human, and yet we’re going down there just to explore,” Denton said. “[We’re] not really there for any other necessary reason except to go see what it’s like.” 

The required physical education classes can also help students stay active during Ithaca’s long winters. Danni Liu ’24 chose to take Physical Education 1330: Beginner Downhill Skiing this spring.

“A lot of my friends asked me if I wanted to go skiing during the break, but I had never been before, so I didn’t know how to ski,” Liu said. “I felt like I missed an opportunity to have fun with my friends, so that’s why I’m choosing to take this class.” 

For students like Denton, these classes are a way to build confidence, both in the sport and more generally as well. 

“I’m not an adrenaline junkie by any stretch of the imagination,” Denton said. “I am super scared, my palms are sweating just talking to you about [caving]. But that sense of accomplishment that you get from conquering some sort of fear or apprehension has been kind of addicting to me.”

The varying structures of physical education courses and the wide range of students taking each course allow people to meet and form strong relationships with others of different backgrounds. The skiing course, for example, meets once a week for around five hours, whereas caving is a week-long course that ends with a weekend camping trip near the caves.

“We have a campfire at night and we roast marshmallows and have s’mores, and we talk about our experience at Cornell,” Denton said. “Some of the students are undergraduates, and some of them are graduate students, so it’s really fun to hear people’s stories and learn about different walks of life.”

Though these courses increase accessibility to different activities and allow students to meet others of different backgrounds, this increased exposure only reaches a certain extent. The course expenses may deter students who cannot afford to take the class, shaping the demographics of the classes. According to Cornell’s course roster, the fee for caving is $325 for the Spring 2023 semester.

“Scuba diving is a relatively expensive activity, whether you want to buy and maintain your own gear or pay someone else to take you out,” said Melia Matthews grad, who helps assist Physical Education 1130: Open Water Scuba. “So it does tend to be more white in population, but I think people are working to make it more accessible to everyone. It’s definitely not a sport for just one group of people, it should be something that everyone can experience.”

According to the Associate Director of Physical Education and Director of Aquatics Brigitta Putnam, one quarter of Cornell’s physical education classes, as well as pool access, are free. The University offers different free courses each year so that students are able to try a variety of classes. 

There is also an ongoing effort to expand the Cornell Outdoor Education Endowment, a grant that helps cover course fees for students in need of financial assistance. In addition to continuing to make these physical education courses more accessible, instructors in caving and aquatics hope to improve their courses through better and larger facilities such as a new pool and increased access to caves for teaching.

Ultimately, with improved accessibility and resources for physical education courses, Matthews said she hopes students will take advantage of these unique classes to push themselves out of their comfort zones and explore more of what Ithaca has to offer.

“There’s just an entire world out there that most people don’t appreciate or even know is there,” Matthews said. “[The class] really does expand your horizons in what you’re able to see and explore on the planet.”

Stuti Gupta ’25 is a Sun contributor. She can be reached at [email protected].