By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Experiential learning is a popular buzzword in higher education.
But what does it really mean?
At the University of Nebraska at Kearney, the definition is simple: learning by doing. And it’s something every student gets to experience.
Lopers prepare for their future careers by conducting undergraduate research alongside expert faculty members, interning at businesses across the state and country, student teaching in K-12 classrooms, partnering with local clients on projects and exhibiting their creative work.
“This hands-on experience really sets UNK students apart when they’re applying for jobs or placement in a graduate or professional school,” said Beth Hinga, director of assessment at UNK.
Through experiential learning, students develop the critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication and leadership skills that are desirable to employers and graduate and professional schools. It also provides an opportunity to enhance their cultural competence and diversity awareness, which are important attributes in today’s global society.
“We want students to get the most out of their education here at UNK, both inside and outside the classroom, and experiential learning is a crucial component of that,” Hinga said.
Beyond the Books – a new program launched this semester – ensures all Lopers have the opportunity to participate in this type of real-world learning during their time at UNK.
The program, developed with input from faculty, staff and students from across campus, makes experiential learning a graduation requirement for students in every undergraduate degree program, beginning with the first-year freshmen and transfer students in 2020-21.
“For a lot students, they’re not going to notice anything different because their academic program already contains an experiential learning component,” Hinga said.
For instance, the College of Business and Technology added an experiential learning component several years ago, student teaching is a requirement for future educators and fine arts students already participate in performances, showcases and recitals.
However, some programs will need to add a designated experiential learning course, practicum or project to meet this requirement – a process Hinga hopes to have finalized by the end of the academic year.
“It’s really spawning some creativity, and I think that’s a good thing,” she said.
Experiential learning complements classroom activities by allowing students to dig deeper into their fields of study while gaining confidence and resume-building expertise. For some students, it’s a way to explore new interests and discover potential career paths.
In addition to boosting their professional skills, Hinga noted that students who participate in hands-on learning are more engaged, which leads to higher retention and graduation rates.
“Hopefully these experiences help them realize how valuable a college education is and reinforces their commitment to earning a degree,” said Hinga, who chairs the assessment committee that developed the Beyond the Books program.
UNK also offers numerous study abroad programs for adventurous students who want to expand their worldview and about 150 student organizations and clubs for Lopers looking to get involved on campus and in the community. Approximately 80% of UNK students are involved in organizations and activities that build leadership skills.
CREATE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
Create Your Own Adventure, a co-curricular program launched alongside Beyond the Books, provides another option for personal and professional development.
Through the program, UNK students can participate in a series of activities and events focused on improving their skills and proficiency in a specific area. Each pathway, designed by UNK faculty or staff, serves as a guide students follow from their freshman through senior years.
An employability pathway, for example, allows students to sharpen the skills they’ll need to draw interest from potential employers. This pathway includes career fairs and other professional events, as well as business attire and etiquette training along with resume and cover letter tips.
Additional pathways will be geared toward academic support, undergraduate research and other areas of interest.
Unlike Beyond the Books, this program isn’t a requirement for students, but it does offer plenty of benefits for those who sign up.
“These pathways will be really helpful for students as they prepare for their futures,” said Hinga, who is working with departments across campus to expand the Create Your Own Adventure program.