Experiential education is all the rage.
No longer confined to internships or study abroad, it now includes service learning opportunities, freshman research experiences, and, most ambitiously, project-based learning at all levels of the curriculum.
A growing number of campuses have created special “maker spaces” for innovative projects. UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education has its “Technology Sandbox,” a computing facility where innovators can work collaboratively on projects involving computer modeling, GIS, web authoring, web programming, graphics, animation, image processing, compression and archiving. Columbia University’s Butler Library has created a Digital Humanities Center, where faculty and students can incorporate computer-based textual, bibliographic, image, and video information into their research and teaching. The University of Michigan has instituted the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, the Learning, Education, and Design (LED) Lab, and the Digital Education and Innovation Lab.
But the curricular implications of the innovation incubator and accelerator notion have not yet been fully embraced.
To be sure, a growing number of programs, particularly in engineering, are integrating hands-on problem solving into their curriculum. Cookie cutter lab experiments are giving way to clinics where students engage in collaborative projects.
I would suggest that many smart, driven students, brimming with exciting ideas, might benefit enormously if they had the opportunity to pursue ambitious technology-enhanced projects as part of their formal education and received the kinds of multidisciplinary support and mentoring they need to bring these projects to fruition.
It is far too facile to dismiss such an approach as vocational training. Rather, it would be an education that is inquiry-based and challenge-driven with real-world implications.
If such an approach is to be successful, it is essential that faculty members from relevant disciplines play an active role as advisors, mentors, and facilitators.
Of course, one would be quite right to ask: How do you integrate such an approach into the curriculum? And equally important, how do you assess these projects?
We already do something a bit like this with senior theses or honors projects, which are often supervised by a team of faculty members and often evaluated by outside examiners.
As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I had the opportunity to devote my senior year to a single project – a biography of the writer and poet Jean Toomer – with support that allowed me to interview such figures as Arna Bontemps, Aaron Douglas, and Georgia O’Keeffe, and to conduct research in the archives at Fisk University and the Library of Congress -- and then to have a major figure in the field of African American Studies, August Meier, administer an oral examination.
I suspect that many future academics had similar experiences, offering first-hand exposure to the excitement and challenges of independent research.
Certainly, the incubator model is not appropriate for every student. But if we think of the university as a “big tent” which might offer a wide variety of learning experiences that are more personalized to meet the needs of individual students, this model should certainly be part of the mix.
Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.
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