Experiential Educator Feature
What does experiential learning mean to you?
Experiential learning is all about translating the foundational knowledge gained in the classroom into practical understanding through real-world application. If students are always given the same rinse-and-repeat projects with no connection to industry, they will never develop the essential skills needed to truly succeed in our rapidly changing world. Students must face curveballs, react to undefined problems, and then reflect with the help of mentorship. The end result? Young professionals with a clearer sense of how to adapt and move forward beyond setbacks.
Why is experiential learning a priority for you?
It is an important step for developing one’s mindset in a given field that leads to inherent growth and new knowledge. As someone who came from industry at Procter & Gamble, I know firsthand that skills, especially the “soft skills” like verbal and written communication, cannot simply be learned but rather need to be practiced over time. I want my students to understand that they are not robots that simply regurgitate a solution based on what they saw on the board. They need to develop skills that show their adaptability to any setting even if it pushes them outside of their comfort zone. Sometimes the solution will be right in front of them and sometimes it will be off the beaten path – nonetheless students must learn the problem-solving process.
What skills do your students use when engaged in experiential learning?
The number one skill is engineering problem solving. This is a continuous work in progress for all of my students because there is no cookbook approach to developing this skill. They must learn the fundamental skills and use their intuition to derive a solution to a problem even when the pathway is not immediately evident. When the students are confronted with an unusual problem, whose answer is not clearly stated in the back of a textbook, the next step is to break the problem apart, figure out the knowns, and then tackle the unknowns with a toolkit of skills and knowledge.
This leads to another skill that students develop via experiential learning: “soft” skills. Technical skills like data analysis – although essential – often overshadow soft skills, such as communication, teamwork, and leadership. Students often lack these equally important soft skills, so I encourage the development of them as much as possible. As educators, we need to steer students away from the classic “data dump” and instead tell us: “What does the data mean? What can we learn from this? How can we apply this analysis further? What are the next steps?” – the keyword being “we.” Students must learn how to think, learn, and even struggle together. Without this collective mission to succeed, the collaborative working world will come as a major shock to them.
Overall, the students are able to gain a greater appreciation for what the “real world” beyond being a student holds for them. By having this hands-on learning opportunity, the students develop themselves into more marketable engineers for companies.
What advice do you have for faculty and institutions considering experiential learning?
Take the plunge and be open-minded! While it may seem daunting to execute an experiential learning environment, one cannot grow without facing the challenge. Given the current state of the world and higher education, educators need to adapt to the future in order to maintain the same quality of learning. This means a greater effort to excite students with engagements between industry and academia.
Paint a vision for what you want your students to gain from such an experience and then build up around that vision. You never know what can happen without some trial and error. The A+ students may struggle with the fear of “failure.” Life is not always fair, so as engineers all students need to be nimble as they dodge life’s curveballs.
For education to progress we have to take a moment of pause – put aside our biases – and do what is best for the students. If there is anything I have learned as an educator, it is to build strong relationships with your students, ask questions and actually LISTEN to the answers, and always strive to help them succeed!