Efforts in what educators like to call "experiential education" have increased in both secondary and higher education. While the phrase itself is fairly self-explanatory, experiential education can and does take on many different forms depending on the discipline. It can be hands-on research, community service, cooperative learning, or even internships in one's chosen field.
Although not necessarily a new or recent trend, experiential education has become a top priority for many schools and universities, and the opportunities to engage in experiential education have only continued to increase over the years.
UT's infamous "Top 25" push has focused a good deal of administrative time and money on developing one particular form of experiential education, namely research. Many educators, especially in higher education, see research as the most important element of experiential learning and certainly the one requiring the most attention and development. For many disciplines, research is the primary way to take subject material outside of a classroom and into an applied setting. The study of history, for example, takes on a very different form when it is taught in a lecture format rather than when it is being examined through primary sources and through the application of theories and methods. Similarly, most scientists agree that research in their labs is the best way for them to apply learned material.
There is no denying that research plays a critical role in experiential learning at the collegiate level. But to say that it is the only way to engage in experiential learning is to perform a disservice to other methods that create similar opportunities for students to apply the knowledge of their field to a discernable and practical situation. For example, while many engineers do engage in research projects, many others choose to participate in co-ops or internships in their field, which is a practical choice considering that much of engineering is extremely applied. Foreign language students would most likely get much more out of their studies with a chance to practice their speaking and writing skills in a practical setting, like translating for a company or for immigrants. Nurses and pre-med students work with hospitals, often on a daily basis, as training for their future careers.
Students from almost every discipline benefit vastly from engagement with community service, volunteer work, and activism. Future social workers are certainly not the only students who can and should participate in community service, because there are organizations that work to improve conditions in almost every area imaginable. Not only do we, as students, have an obligation to give back to our communities in return for the education and opportunities that we have received, but involvement in community service can often provide invaluable experiences learning about people, society, and the world in which we live.
It is often not difficult to seek out and to find these experiential education opportunities, especially at a large public university with the resources like the UT. But sometimes it can require getting creative, networking, and thinking outside the box about what hands-on experience would contribute best to the topic in question. It might require being willing to explore options that seem on the surface to not fit with a particular career goal, or even to create new opportunities. Regardless, students should not shy away from engaging in experiential learning. Knowledge in any form is best applied outside of textbooks and lecture halls. It belongs in the real world, where discoveries are made, jobs are performed, and service is rendered.
— Sarah Russell is a senior in history. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.