Graduates find hands-on learning makes a big impact

As they adorn their caps and gowns, many students in the Class of 2015 will be walking into Commencement ceremonies having had hands-on learning experiences outside the classroom while at the University of Georgia.

Whether undergraduate research, study abroad, service-learning, internships or other experiences, UGA students aren’t limited to learning inside the classroom. Experiential learning plays a key role in enhancing many students’ learning and often leaves an impact on their academic experiences and lives.

Erin Abernethy, who will be graduating with a Master of Science in ecology, spent two summers in Hawaii researching the impact of invasive species on the ecosystem process of scavenging.

“My goal was to find out what eats carcasses on Hawaii, an area lacking native scavengers,” Abernethy said. “While insects did eat a large portion of the carcasses, I discovered that a surprisingly high proportion was taken by other invasives, primarily mongooses and rats. I discovered that invasive animals acted as scavengers using the carcasses of other invasives and sometimes even ate the carcasses of their own species.” 

Abernethy said her research in Hawaii, and later work processing that research at the Savannah River Ecology Lab, helped solidify her career choice. Her hands-on learning also taught her how to get a large-scale research project off the ground and utilize large data management. 

For Jeniffer Abdullah, a UGA student who will receive a Bachelor of Social Work with a Disabilities Studies Certificate, her service-learning at three local nonprofits helped her “see theories in practice.”

Abdullah created a workshop to share information about self-advocacy while working with People First of Athens. With Extra Special People, she was a friend and mentor to a child at camp. Her work with Hope Haven included over 500 hours on projects ranging from focus groups to research.

“Working with people with disabilities has deeply enhanced my undergraduate knowledge in that it changed the way that I look at people,” Abdullah said.

During his time at UGA, Ben Mays did an internship with The Westervelt Co. in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. There he worked with hunting-lease management and assisted with research projects that focused on topics such as deer mortality, fawn recruitment and insect biodiversity.

“(My internship) allowed me to gain valuable experience that prepares me for my future career as a wildlife biologist,” Mays said. 

Prior to his learning in the field, Mays, who will graduate with a B.S. in forest resources with an emphasis in wildlife sciences, had career aspirations of working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

“Now that I have worked for a private company and enjoyed the experience, I aspire to work in the private sector,” he said.

While at UGA, Charles King, a soon-to-be graduate with a B.A. in middle school education, has helped revive the Black Male Leadership Society and taught in local middle schools.

King said working with BMLS has helped him discover more about his and others’ identities. It also has made him think more about his relationship to other people and the community. King’s time teaching has prepared him for a long-term career in education and confirmed that the classroom is where he’s “meant to be.”

“The benefits of being involved in both BMLS and student teaching have been being able to watch my general body members and students become more aware of themselves and their community,” he said. “In either setting, college or middle school, we are constantly in search of ourselves and our place in that environment. With both groups, I’ve been able to assist in navigating that journey, and it’s incredible to see the growth BMLS members and my students have made in one year alone.”

Fifteen hands-on learning experiences of these and other UGA students can be read at There, students discuss their experiential learning and how it has shaped their lives and careers.

Those who want to wish the Class of 2015 well or keep up with all the celebrations and congratulations can use the hashtag #UGA15 on social media to spread the love for UGA and the graduating Bulldogs.