No experience necessary

The term experiential learning may be a recent invention, but our reputation for preparing students for the real world through a hands-on approach to education extends back to our founding nearly 150 years ago.

The Steel Bridge Design Team earned second place at the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2016 Mid-Continent Student Conference and earned a berth to nationals. During the competitions, the team raced to construct its bridge as quickly as possible. The bridge was scored on its weight and rigidity, construction speed, and the number of team members building the bridge. It was the first time S&T hosted the conference in nearly 20 years.

The Steel Bridge Design Team earned second place at the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2016 Mid-Continent Student Conference and earned a berth to nationals. During the competitions, the team raced to construct its bridge as quickly as possible. The bridge was scored on its weight and rigidity, construction speed, and the number of team members building the bridge. It was the first time S&T hosted the conference in nearly 20 years.

One of our earliest graduates — R.A. Grabill, class of 1878 — described this method well when he wrote that our students “work not only with their heads, but with their hands” as they “unravel the mysteries and solve the problems which nature lay before us.”

In Grabill’s day, that combination of traditional education and application was essential for a nation recovering from the Civil War and expanding its industrial capacity. As a product of the land-grant movement in the 19th century, our campus was created to educate the engineers and scientists the nation needed to rebuild and advance industrially and technologically.

Today’s Missouri S&T graduates are no longer fueling westward expansion or an industrial revolution. But the philosophy that drove applied learning in the 1870s is as essential and relevant to Missouri S&T today as it was in our formative years.

Strategically experiential

Today’s approach to experiential learning is more strategic than inherent. This type of applied learning is now a formal part of the S&T student experience. In fact, it’s so integral to our educational philosophy that it is right at the top of our strategic plan. Theme 1, Lever 1 of Rising to the Challenge: Missouri S&T’s Strategy for Success calls on all S&T students to take part in at least one experiential learning project before they graduate. This requirement began with the fall 2015 entering class.

Of course, experiential learning is more than a graduation requirement — it’s a way to prepare students for the world beyond college. Employers are eager to hire graduates who have put in extra effort beyond their classroom studies and lab assignments, and students who engage in experiential learning offer tangible proof of that effort. Plus, the fact that a student has studied overseas, led a design team or served in student government looks terrific on a resume.

But what, precisely, constitutes “experiential learning”? And how does it differ from other hands-on learning tasks, such as a lab course? For the S&T requirement, the difference lies in a single word: significant. The strategic plan calls for students to “participate in some significant experiential learning activity before they graduate.”

That means students must go beyond mastering basic skills and knowledge when applying what they’re learning. Experiential learning involves collaboration (with other students, faculty, third parties such as businesses or organizations, or any combination of those), reflection (through journaling their experiences, for example), and learning in a way that fits their style and aptitude.

“Experiential learning is more than a graduation requirement; it’s a way to prepare students for the world beyond college.”

Also, “hands-on” learning shouldn’t be taken literally when it comes to experiential learning. While some students love to work with their hands on student design teams, others may prefer analyzing data as members of those same teams — or as part of an undergraduate research project. Still others may prefer to experience the world outside the U.S. by studying in another land, while others will want to get work experience through a co-op or internship. All are examples of experiential learning activities.

Ultimately, it’s up to students to work with their academic programs and faculty advisors to decide what approach works best for them. It’s clear that S&T’s heritage as a place where students “work not only with their heads, but with their hands” will continue to position the university and its alumni well with the world beyond campus.

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