Experiential Learning

I have always thought that the work of academics should be more applied and that researchers should work to ensure that their work has some practical meaning that is accessible to those who are able to use their conclusions. I think NSF has driven us to be more applied by requiring researchers to facilitate broader impacts and university centers, like the one I work for, and others help disseminate an apply university research. That said,  I think every faculty member conducting research should be responsible for assisting in the dissemination and application of their research.  In a way, this responsibility is linked to many of the faculty responsibilities we talked about in our first few classes.

To that end, I think higher education should be more experiential. I envision a future where students and faculty spend less time and resources on class-room teaching and learning and more time working together to bring meaningful change through research and its application. For example, I think students who have the opportunity to work with the Center for Housing Research get to apply what they have learned in their course work, develop specific skills to meet the needs of our project sponsors, understand how to analyze and interpret data so that it is usable by our clients and even take it a step further, helping our clients figure out how to apply our findings. From what I understand, this experience is all too rare.

I agree with Carlos F. Mantilla P. (from our class) — he wrote in a recent blog post that internships are “kind of necessary.”  And I further agree that ideally, something akin to internships, but longer, more involved and professor-led would be included in every semester and every degree program. My vision is that students would be involved in faculty research throughout their time in college until they begin their own research as Masters or Doctoral students. Just for discussion’s sake here is a possible trajectory.

1st year undergraduate students are all involved in data collection. Think about how much data we could collect if we mobilized our entire undergraduate population!! As part of a housing conditions study in James City County we trained undergraduate students at William and Mary to collect data about housing conditions. The students drove by and assessed the condition of almost 20,000 houses. You can read more about it here. As a part of the experience, these student should read the research proposal for the research  to which they are contributing and be required to check back in on the research throughout their time in college.

2nd year undergraduates can choose to continue to participate in the same study or begin data collection in a new study. Or, if they have already committed to a major, they should begin working with a faculty adviser and contributing to his or her research.

3rd year undergraduates must be contributing to research in their major field.

4th and 5th year undergraduates continue with their in-major research and one of their final degree requirements should be making efforts to disseminate and apply the research they have been working on in an internship-like setting.

I think such a trajectory would help students better prepare for jobs and for further higher education. And, when students go on to be practitioners, they are better able to seek out and apply relevant research, so that eventually we have researchers and practitioners working together. Researchers working to disseminate and apply their work and practitioners seeking out research and working to ensure that their work employs the most recent and relevant knowledge available.