“Experiential learning.” Even if you’ve heard the term, you may be uncertain of its meaning.
At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, experiential learning very specifically refers to a high-priority and high-impact element of the UTC experience that uniquely puts students at the center of the University’s value to its community and region.
Outdoor Chattanooga, a 15-year-old division of city government’s Department of Economic and Community Development, is just one of countless examples. In 2018, the organization got a free dose of top expertise from UTC Assistant Professor Joy Lin and her students. A self-described “very outdoorsy person,” Lin joined UTC in 2017 and a year later, partnered her digital marketing class with Outdoor Chattanooga to assess and redesign its website for a better user experience.
“I saw in their newsletter they planned to revamp their website and sought input,” Lin says. “I went to see them—we agreed more young people should get off their cell phones—and they embraced the opportunity for my students to conduct market research and give them input on the target market.”
Whatever the academic discipline, says Bengt Carlson, UTC’s experiential learning coordinator, “Experiential learning is just running theory through practice—taking ideas and understanding about something and putting them into practice. Since its inception in 2013, the number of students participating has grown to involve a third of the total student body.”
The inception Carlson refers to is UTC’s distinctive focus on experiential learning, formalized with the “ThinkAchieve: Beyond the Classroom” platform implemented in 2013. Students participate in special programs—called experiences—and receive weekly email listings of campus and community events they can attend and must reflect and report on to earn points toward awards and recognition.
Designated experiences include serving as campus orientation leaders, financial literacy training, mentoring elementary schoolchildren toward collegiate careers, men’s and women’s leadership development and more. Weekly events cover the gamut—from the “Top Five Free Things to Do in Chattanooga,” to a Native American heritage luncheon; and workshops on everything from using 3-D modeling software to conducting legal research.
Where the program really breaks out of the classroom, though, is in designated experiential learning courses. These semester-long, for-credit courses present students with the academic understanding of a subject that students then compare to the reality of the subject as it impacts everyday life.
Accumulating a required minimum 120 points through a combination of the experiential learning options earns “ThinkAchieve Graduate” status along with a UTC bachelor’s degree. Besides incentivizing students to seek opportunities to compare course content to hands-on reality, ThinkAchieve also is about immersion in campus and community.
“You can make a compelling case that UTC is highly involved in its community,” Carlson says. “Solution Scholars, for example. They work with the Tennessee Small Business consortium over in the incubator on Cherokee Boulevard right on the north shore. They get assigned projects for small businesses as clients, and they do research for the small businesses to help inform a decision or a problem being faced.”
Beverly Brockman, who heads the Gary W. Rollins College of Business’ department of marketing and entrepreneurship—home of Solutions Scholars—says students fill an unmet expertise need of local business. “The other part of it, and this is already happening, is that the students who are doing exceptionally well and are exceptionally dedicated and interested in working in this environment, they’re hired by Solutions Scholars, Inc. to continue their work for a client over the holiday break or over the summer break. Beyond the semester course calendar.
“It doesn’t always happen that you have partnerships that just work, but it has been a fantastic arrangement between UTC; the instructor, Liza Soydan, a professional with her own consulting firm; and the Tennessee Small Business Development Center and its director, Lynn Chesnutt, who vets all the clients students work with.”
Krysta Murillo is a visiting assistant professor in the midst of her third, one-year appointment with the UTC School of Education. In 2017, she and Joy Lin were among five “Experiential Learning Faculty Fellows” selected to review obstacles to more robust connection of theory to practice. Fellows also were to develop his or her own experiential learning course, apply for experiential learning course designation and share that experience with colleagues.
“Not until I ventured out to participate in this ThinkAchieve cohort and listened to other professors talk about it in their courses did I know how much experiential learning is a part of UTC,” Murillo says. “I was blown away. I never knew you could take a marketing course into a local business and ask about helping fulfill their unmet needs.
“Faculty are being encouraged across disciplines to think about their course work—what could fit here to give students more meaningful applications than they would have without experiential learning? What would make this opportunity even better?” Murillo adds. “Being more competent in whatever your field gives all students an edge when they graduate, and here at UTC that there’s a great, great opportunity to do that.”
Carlson says a designated task force reviews applications from across campus for proposed new course offerings, both for-credit and non-credit. Proposals for new fall 2019 courses were due in February. Most often, students report signing up for the obvious, tangible rewards such as priority registration, then find themselves overwhelmed by the intrinsic rewards they didn’t anticipate. As Carlson reads from a satisfied student’s email: “I signed up to get priority registration and I got all of this I never expected!”
Chancellor Steve Angle notes that experiential learning and courses that facilitate it at UTC reach far beyond the successful and highly visible ThinkAchieve. “There are so very many areas. There’s undergraduate research, internships, practicum courses; and something like an apprentice model for music and theater students,” Angle says. “The advantage for UTC to do experiential learning right is that we focus on undergraduates in a community that wants to engage our students and has real opportunities for our students.
“We have faculty—in our theater program— who want to have students learn by doing. In engineering, our students get the opportunity to engage in hands-on research with faculty and graduate students,” adds Angle. “Between the campus and the community, we really can provide every student a meaningful experience.”
The very first goal of the UTC strategic plan calls for it, in fact: “Transform lives through meaningful learning experiences.”
To achieve that goal, the plan states, “All undergraduates will complete an internship, practicum, service project, research project, senior capstone, honors thesis or international experience.”
In the most recently reported statistics, for the 2017-2018 year, 1,996 unique students participated in 62 different UTC experiential learning courses. Another 181 unique students participated in events from Take Back the Night to the Multicultural Mentorship Program to various study abroad opportunities. Another 378 students took advantage of experiences from PAWS (Postsecondary Awareness with Success), a mentoring program for elementary school children, to High-Achieving Mocs Living Learning Community (HAM LLC) and more.
Since ThinkAchieve’s inception in 2013, the number of individual students participating in each category has grown from 693 to more than 3,000—or about a third of the total student body.
Launched in 2016, “ReSEARCH Dialogues” is a two-day, April celebration and exhibition of noteworthy achievements in scholarship, engagement, the arts, research and creativity involving undergraduates, graduate students and faculty. Four areas of competition are in podium and panel presentations; poster and display presentations; live performances; and business pitches. In one year, alone, from the event’s second year to its most recent, 2018, participation increased by about 25 percent.
“The things we teach students in class should help prepare them to learn more by themselves,” Lin says, “and they need to be able to think for themselves after they graduate, no matter what their field. Because of the experiential learning process, UTC students may have to go through some struggles, but they do so in an environment where there is a safety net. We are preparing them to go through struggles after they finish college. I don’t just want them to get a job with what they learn in class—I want them to be able to keep a job by themselves, by what they know and what they can contribute.”