Colleges and universities are enhancing undergraduate learning by combining in-class instruction with practical, real-world experiences. At Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU), freshmen and seniors can take part in two innovative programs that “bookend” their academic career, according to Mark Brodl, provost and dean of faculty.

The effort began three years ago when IWU launched its Signature Experience for seniors. “A Signature Experience is meant to be a project that may often be anchored in a clear academic discipline, but it may not necessarily be. It’s meant to look holistically at a student’s breadth of interest across their time at IWU. It’s an opportunity for them to assemble for themselves a project that pulls those components together,” says Brodl.

Self-directed learning
Students come up with proposals that draw on their interests, working with faculty members who help them find projects outside the classroom that deepen their studies. For example, IWU Biology Professor Will Jaeckle arranged for an intensive research trip to the Smithsonian Marine Station in Florida for Jamie Blumberg, a senior with an interest in viruses.

Although students can count on the counsel and mentoring of faculty, the Signature Experience is designed to have them take ownership of their learning and be independent. “We’re working hard on making sure that we’ve got the classroom experiences and the outer classroom experiences that help them build into those directions,” says Brodl.

Besides giving students an active, engaged learning experience that will look good on their résumés, the program is a way for IWU to distinguish itself from other schools. As a small liberal arts college, the added distinction can help IWU attract and retain students. Currently, Signature Experiences are available from all 27 departments at the school. Eight departments make Signature Experiences a requirement, but the administration will vote in November on making it mandatory for all departments.

Expanding the Experience
After IWU established the Signature Experience for seniors, they stepped back to come up with the First-Year Experience (FYE) for freshmen. They ran a prototype last year and are scaling up the program this year but will not make it a requirement for fear of driving away prospective students. Instead, FYE looks for students who have a true passion for the humanities, liberal arts, or social sciences. Freshmen can choose from nine First-Year Experience programs.

During the fall semester, students are taught to build close relationships with faculty members and classmates at school and off-campus. For example, students might do research in the field or meet with authors, then discuss how it relates to their classroom experience.

In the spring, students and faculty work in small groups to develop their own syllabus and co- and extra-curricular activities that supplement their experience. During spring break, students might attend cultural events with faculty, or meet with alumni or with institutions in their field of interest. The semester culminates in a research symposium at which FYE freshmen give presentations.

Tips for starting your own Experience
IWU is developing programs for sophomores and juniors to keep the momentum going. Brodl offers the following advice to schools that want to add a real-world component to their curriculum:

Involve faculty from the start. “Stimulate conversations with faculty about possibilities and potential and listen. Be clear about what the goals are but listen to ideas bubbling up from the faculty.”

Don’t be locked in to one execution. Let things develop naturally and seize unexpected opportunities.

Ask for alumni and local support. Get alumni involved and see if they can “provide opportunities to think about those connections for the real world.” Reach out to members of your regional community and involve them in your planning also.

Promote and publicize the program. “Make sure you have ways of recognizing both the importance of this work and the willingness of the faculty to invest in it.”

About the Author:

Robert Lerose is a New York-based freelance writer. He received the APEX Grand Award and seven Awards For Publication Excellence for his journalism. He was the 2004 winner of the Great American Think-Off, a philosophy competition open to the public.


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