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UGA turns experiential learning vision into reality

Professor George Vellidis works with graduate student Anna Orfanou on checking the circuit board of a University of Georgia Smart Sensor Array node. Each node is a soil moisture probe that sends information to the cloud. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

Two years ago, the University of Georgia made a daring commitment: to provide all undergraduate students with a meaningful experiential learning opportunity. Beginning fall 2016, every incoming student has to fulfill an experiential learning (EL) requirement to graduate.

The initiative encourages UGA students to connect their academic foundations to the world beyond the classroom. To not just learn, but to learn by doing, whether that’s through an internship, faculty-guided research, study abroad, service-learning or a capstone project.

With this initiative, UGA became the largest university in the nation to tackle such a challenge and is now setting the standard for experiential learning in public higher education.

Students in the Georgia Fishes field study course learn material first-hand on Sapelo Island. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

“We are doing this on a bigger scale and in a different way than anyone else,” said Vice President for Instruction Rahul Shrivastav, whose office is spearheading this effort. “So, we are writing the rules as we play the game. And that’s challenging, but it’s also fun.”

Since the initiative started, UGA has been approached by university representatives in the SEC, Big 10 and Big 12 conferences as well as dozens of other small colleges and universities about how UGA got the program up and running. The experiential learning initiative was also featured at the Southeastern Conference’s academic summit in 2o17, at a 2016 gathering of the Indiana University system, and in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Two years in, how is a flagship university with over 28,000 undergraduates fulfilling this promise?

Getting started

It started with setting a high bar.

The job of establishing guidelines for what qualifies as a certified EL opportunity went to a faculty subcommittee, with representatives from across the university. The committee came up with a set of demanding but flexible criteria based around targeted learning outcomes. It included, among others, the prerequisites that students must be mentored and be involved in a sustained or intensive activity.

In other words, not just any summer internship or service project will pass the test. To satisfy the requirement, EL opportunities have to be pre-approved by the student’s school or college and meet the guidelines.

With the criteria in place, the Office of Instruction built a database for storing and tracking the courses and non-credit activities that meet the requirements. So far there are more than 3,500 opportunities.

Experiential learning for arts and sciences

While experiential learning has long been part of many of UGA’s pre-professional programs, there was initial concern about the feasibility of ensuring science and humanities majors had a diverse range of opportunities.

In STEM disciplines, undergraduate research is the most coveted EL experience. But it would be impossible to provide UGA’s 2,000-plus undergraduate biology majors with one-on-one research apprenticeships.

For years, Erin Dolan, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Innovative Science Education, has been investigating this dilemma: how to make undergraduate research scalable and effective.

So, it not only benefits the students, it benefits the science.” — Professor Erin Dolan

Dolan adapted a team-based research model called Vertically Integrated Projects, originally developed at Georgia Tech. It gives undergraduates the opportunity to individually work on a piece of a faculty member’s research — the kind that requires many minds and hands — while collaborating with faculty, graduate students and peers.

“You can tackle problems in a way that you wouldn’t be able to if it was just one grad student or postdoc or a handful of folks in a research group,” Dolan said. “So, it not only benefits the students, it benefits the science.”

And while humanities students like English majors are finding internships in publishing or presenting their original research at conferences, English professor Sujata Iyengar also adapted the Bard into a service-learning experience. In her Shakespeare in the Classroom course, students can earn their EL credit by working with eighth-grade English teachers on their Shakespeare curriculum of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Hilsman Middle School in Athens.

It not only helps her students determine whether they want to be teachers, Iyengar said, “They also have a much deeper understanding of the play, because in order to teach something you have to level up, you have to know it better than the people you’re teaching it to.”

Internships

Internships are a key component of experiential learning, and the university is working to adapt established internships into ones that meet the EL requirements.

That’s where UGA’s size becomes an advantage. Students have diverse opportunities within the wide-ranging non-credit UGA units, whether through the university’s Public Service and Outreach programs, the Division of Student Affairs, the Office of Sustainability, or the university’s libraries and museums.

Student interns at Newell-Rubbermaid offices in Atlanta present information about a child car seat in a conference room. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

UGA is still working out how to maintain standards with external internships, but it is making progress by working with community partners. For example, the regional startup hub Four Athens, which supports 200 local businesses, is collaborating with UGA to create an internship program built around UGA’s experiential learning outcomes. In the program, a cohort of students are placed in local startups. To validate the learning experience, students regularly meet with their cohort and with mentors to share their work and experiences.

With the program entering its third year, opportunities abound, Shrivastav said. The challenge is ensuring that every student can find an opportunity that reflects their interests and goals. But Shrivastav thinks UGA and its faculty are up to the challenge.

“What has made this initiative successful so far is UGA’s strong culture that values teaching,” he said. “That’s a really distinctive feature at UGA, that we have people who are world-class researchers who also care about teaching.”