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Tuesday, February 26th, 2008 - 11:30 am

Experience for a lifetime!

By ERIKA ROSE
Erika Rose is a freelance writer, alumna of Purdue University Calumet and frequent contributor to Purdue Calumet INSIGHT

Under Kovach’s watchful eye, Jamie Turkevich learned experientially last fall by designing an experiential learning logo while interning in the University’s Center for Student Achievement.

The “real world” can be as relentless as it is rewarding. Once hired into their respective fields, even the most astute and talented new graduates have been known to be dealt harsh criticism, get sent back to the drawing board, face impossible deadlines and make mistakes. They learn the harsh reality that the principles they learned in school don’t always apply in exactly the same way in which they were taught.Those with degree in hand, yet struggling to get hired, face other obstacles. The employer wants someone with “experience,” but how can one have experience when pursuing that first, post-graduation job? It’s all part of the real world of employment. Wouldn’t it be better to face obstacles like these while still in school and with a professor to look to for advice and guidance? Wouldn’t it be better if graduates walked away from their university already equipped with the “experience” that employers demand?

The solution to quandaries like these, Purdue University Calumet leaders say, is “experiential learning,” an innovative method of learning that integrates classroom and textbook learning with the applied learning that occurs within a work-related, real world setting.

In 2006, Purdue Calumet received a $1.7 million Title III grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help accomplish this. Beginning next fall, as a requirement for education, all new students must complete two courses or equivalents that are experiential. The nature of these experiential learning opportunities can take the form of any of seven types: internship, cooperative education, practicum, cultural immersion, undergraduate research, service learning or a design project.

Linking experience with course objectives

Experiential learning as on-the-job training is nothing new. Traditionally, education majors have learned experientially through student teaching, and nursing students have benefited from hospital clinical experiences. Internships also have provided hands-on learning opportunities for students. But unlike traditional internships, beginning next fall, course learning opportunities accepted as “experiential” must be structured such that the experience links directly with course objectives.

Academic experiential learning, as it will be introduced at Purdue Calumet next academic year, must meet specific standards of quality set forth by the National Society for Experiential Education (NSEE). The organization is guiding faculty-many of whom have received mini-grants from the Title III allocations-to develop or adapt experiential curricula.

“It’s kind of putting a quality twist to those experiences,” says Janice Golub-Reynolds, manager of experiential learning at Purdue Calumet. “It helps strengthen, not only the academic experience of students, but also their outside engagement. It gives them that ‘a-ha’ moment.”

Ultimately, administrators and faculty want experiential learning to distinguish a Purdue degree earned at Purdue Calumet. Instead of trying to gain and identify experiences worthy of an employer’s attention, Purdue Calumet graduates would have actual, documented work experience that appears on their transcript.

“There’s a big difference between having an experience just to have it, and having a faculty member work with you to review the experience in terms of what you have learned,” said Beth Pellicciotti, assistant vice chancellor for Academic Quality Programs at Purdue Calumet and principal investigator of the grant. “This ‘sense making’ can impact, not only your future learning, but also your future career.”

Learning why they learned what they learned

Robert Kramer, director of the Purdue Calumet Energy Efficiency and Reliability Center, knows first hand how well this concept really works. He first led his students into his field of energy as a way of accelerating the amount of material they had to cover. In one course, students evaluate the energy efficiency within campus buildings. In another, they are paid to conduct energy appraisals for commercial businesses.

“We needed to find something that was more efficient in allowing students to transfer more information and develop more skills that would be available on the conventional type spectrum,” he said.

“This is not where you go out and experience something in the community and come back and talk about it. It is integrated into the fabric of the course itself. This has to be an interactive process in which that external interaction integrates with classroom experience seamlessly.”

For one of their assignments, students had to design a plan to optimize energy usage in The Calumet Conference Center on campus. While they worked in the kitchen, Kramer watched as they grasped the idea of equipment utilization and timing.

“All of a sudden, the classroom theory work started to meld into the real world,” Kramer said. “All of a sudden, they knew why they had learned the partial differential equation.”

Many other visionary and innovative faculty members at Purdue Calumet have offered courses experiential in nature for years that help bridge the gap between lectures, equations and theory and how to apply what students have learned in an ambiguous real world. They serve as examples of how coursework and authentic workforce experiences are interwoven effectively.

After eight weeks of instruction in his project management course, for example, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Information Systems Kuan-Chou Chen introduces his students to an actual business client, for which they will manage a project, solve a problem or design a process. More than a course assignment, the employer client is depending on the students to come through with something that is good enough to be implemented.

In his course, “Problems in Public Relations,” Associate Professor of Communication Thomas Roach takes a back seat while his students form their own consulting company for the purpose of conducting a communication audit for an actual corporate or other organizational client. As a “company,” the students delegate responsibilities among themselves, secure a client and then work together to analyze the effectiveness of their communication processes in conducting the audit. Finally, they present the client with a proposal that ultimately has the power to change the company.

Better trained, more well-rounded graduates

Charged with the initial task of assembling a task force to build the experiential learning program, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Ronald Kovach notes the benefit of engaging the community in educating the very students who will someday work for it.

“The community gets better trained students,” he said. “It gets students who have a better understanding of the field as well as an understanding of the world of work. When they leave us they are experienced.”

Case in point: senior computer graphics technology major Jamie Turkevich. While interning last fall in Purdue Calumet’s Center for Student Achievement, the Highland student applied her classroom, textbook and laboratory lessons in graphic art and branding to design an experiential learning logo.

“I firmly believe that this experience will benefit me when searching for a job (this) spring,” she said. “I have learned what to do and what not to do in order to get tasks completed; how to handle constructive criticism; how to manage my time better; and how to exercise better communication skills between myself and the client.”

In her role as manager of experiential learning, Golub-Reynolds makes sure faculty have the tools they need to carry out experiential learning course objectives. With the help of two coordinators to be hired, the Center for Student Achievement will act as a liaison between faculty and the community, helping to secure third party clients and making sure standards are met among other tasks.

“We create a triangle as far as the educational enterprise is concerned,” Kovach said. “It’s the community or site; it’s the student; and it’s the faculty member.”

Golub-Reynolds recalls working early in her career in Purdue Calumet’s Office of Career Services and noting the energy and maturity an internship opportunity generated for students. Adding a quality check to such opportunities, and bringing those experiences back into the classroom for further instruction has the potential to transform the value of a Purdue degree as offered at Purdue Calumet.

“Think of all the ways this can change students’ lives,” she said. “Not just academically, not just for their career, but civically, socially. It’s going to develop a different, more well rounded individual. Experiential learning is about engaging students in real, authentic experiences.”