As pressure rises for colleges to offer more immersive learning experiences, institutions have begun offering programs outside of the traditional internship opportunities, study abroad programs, and co-ops.
The push for new forms of experiential learning comes from both students, who worry about their post-grad career prospects, and employers, who report widespread skills gaps.
“You can’t just send students off to business and industry or to a nonprofit and expect that it will be a meaningful experience,” argues Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “You really have to be deliberate and intentional [with] connecting it to the goals of the curriculum and the learning outcomes.”
Writing for Education Dive, Natalie Schwartz shares three innovative examples of immersive learning experiences:
1: Performance weeks
Michael Stepniak, dean of Shenandoah University‘s Conservatory, decided to cancel classes for one week so that students could create and rehearse artistic projects for the university’s first-ever Student Performance Week. Stepniak and the conservatory’s faculty feared students would see the week as an opportunity to “play hooky.” But they ended up receiving more than 60 ideas from students for collaborative projects, from musical ensembles to sketch comedy.
Christopher Goodwin, a senior musical theater major and member of the Student Performance Week’s task-force, says the experience week taught him not only how to lead a performance, but also how to communicate ideas to a team and see a project through to completion. “I learned more in that week that I learned in the last four years,” says Goodwin.
The Student Performance Week was also a learning experience for faculty, says Stepniak. “I had a number of faculty [members] who said they felt a little useless during the start of that week because they’re used to being mentors and then all of a sudden they were just observers,” he explains. “A couple of them…said they started to realize that the success they saw in the students was an affirmation of the type of training that they were providing.”
2: Domestic study programs
Wheaton College‘s domestic study programs send small groups of students to destinations within the United States to live for one semester. But unlike traditional study abroad or domestic study programs, Wheaton’s programs include both a 12-week curriculum designed by Wheaton faculty and an independent study related to the location.
In the fall, Wheaton took students to Hawaii to explore the art, culture, and social structure of the islands. And this spring, the college will take students to Puerto Rico to learn about gender-based violence in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Through the domestic study programs, faculty members hope students develop self-confidence and create mental connections that would otherwise be impossible in a lecture hall. “They’re outside of their classroom [and] outside of what they know at Wheaton,” says Touba Ghadessi, the college’s associate provost for academic administration and faculty affairs. “Being in a situation that they are not familiar with allows them to grow 10 times more than they would in the classroom.”
3: Living laboratories
At some larger universities, students can’t graduate until they’ve completed an experiential learning program. And many of these programs happen outside of a specific course or degree program.
For example, Georgia State University‘s (GSU) Digital Learners to Leaders initiative requires teams of students across majors to work together to solve problems within the local community with the use of digitization and the internet of things. Throughout the implementation of their projects, teams receive insight and feedback from professionals across different industries.
Tiffany Green-Abdullah, GSU’s assistant director of learning community development, says the structure of the program not only allows humanities students to learn the tech skills they’ll need to thrive in the digital economy, but also exposes STEM students to soft skills like problem-solving and project-management. “Those are not skills you explicitly learn in a class,” says Green-Abdullah (Schwartz, Education Dive, 1/30).