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Dartmouth’s Experiential Learning Initiative, launched in summer 2015 as part of President Hanlon’s academic vision for the college, has reached its midway point. With two-and-a-half-years in the books and just over two to go, Associate Director for Experiential Learning Ashley Kehoe is looking back at the diverse and numerous accomplishments of the initiative so far, and looking ahead to what is still to come.
Established to support and expand upon a tradition of experiential learning at Dartmouth, the initiative has provided funding, partnership, and a community of practice for faculty and staff to offer intentional, reflective, and applied learning experiences for students. Broadly defined, experiential learning at Dartmouth includes academic and co-curricular opportunities that incorporate elements of research, service for social impact, internships and other professional development, outdoor programs, entrepreneurial activity, leadership training, global study, and other project-based experiences that complement and enhance academic learning. The intended impact of these experiences is to increase students’ confidence and capacity for innovation and risk-taking, to collaborate across difference, and to engage in complex problem solving and reflective critical thinking.
This class was incredible. I loved the interdisciplinary nature of the course and being able to read about and hear so many different perspectives. —Dartmouth '17 on experiential course “Autism: The Science, Story and Experience”
“It was apparent right away that this was not the start of experiential learning at Dartmouth,” says Kehoe, who explains that it has existed in many forms throughout the college’s history, and the initiative was more of a mobilizing and unifying force for a range of existing energy and ideas.
In its first call for proposals, the initiative received 43 applications from 21 academic departments and seven co-curricular centers requesting over $830,000 in funding. Of these, the initiative funded 30 projects that spanned the full spectrum of experiential learning, from an anthropological field experience in South Africa to a learning community convened by the Dartmouth Library for students involved in publishing undergraduate journals.
"This diverse, inclusive, cross-cutting blend of projects is what makes Dartmouth’s experiential learning model distinctive,” says Kehoe.
The experiential learning component was key to the students' ability to think critically and outside the box, to improvise, to collaborate across differences, to experiment, and to see the impact of public humanities. Several of the students remarked that every student should be encouraged/required to take an experiential learning course before they graduate. —Prof. Ivy Schweitzer of ENG 27: American Poetry to 1900 in collaboration with Ledyard Charter School
In some cases, faculty and staff were already offering these experiences to students, but doing so with minimal or no resources or support. In others, brand new ideas had the opportunity to take root. As a result, Kehoe says, “The first year of the initiative focused on increasing Dartmouth's capacity for experiential learning in all its forms, and engaging more students, faculty, and staff than was previously possible." Through this process, the initiative began to reveal the full depth of interest and demand for experiential learning at Dartmouth, as well as the kinds of experiences that are most feasible, effective, and sustainable.
Entering its second year, Kehoe recalibrated the initiative’s efforts to continue supporting new ideas, while also working to harness the momentum and build on the success of initial models. As evidence of this success, Kehoe says, several projects that were seeded in the first year found institutional homes and evolved into established, ongoing programs. The Social Impact Practicum, a model that provides students the opportunity to apply course concepts while addressing community-identified needs, has become a key program for the Center for Social Impact. The E-term, an immersive internship experience for Dartmouth students within the world of professional theater, is now a well-regarded partnership between the Dartmouth theater department and Northern Stage, a world-class theater company located in White River Junction, Vermont.
The E-Term was one of my most valuable Dartmouth experiences. I am a better performer, but more than that, I think I am also a better collaborator and leader because I am more able to bring the level of professionalism I became accustomed to throughout the E-term to everything I do... It is a rare and wonderful opportunity, and I hope that future students will be able to have this experience. —Claire Feuille ‘18, Theater E-Term participant
Others, like the Learning Fellows Program and Student Experiential Learning Fund, which soared in popularity after a first successful year, are beginning to garner support and sustaining resources from other campus areas. This is critical to the success of experiential learning at Dartmouth, says Kehoe. “Seed funding will come to an end,” she says, “but we want to see these incredible learning opportunities persist.” And the feedback in this regard from faculty, staff, and students has been loud and clear, she says. “We hear over and over, ‘We want more!'”
In addition to these proven models, several new ideas have emerged in year two. Seed funding was granted to seven new projects from an intentionally curated pool of 26 applications, and teams of faculty and staff are now delivering fresh opportunities for students across the institution. The Senior Design Challenge, an idea that originated with Ashley Manning ’17 after taking Thayer’s Design Thinking course with Professor Peter Robbie, engages students in a two-term capstone experience to learn and apply the design thinking methodology in addressing local challenges. Manning stayed on at Dartmouth for an additional year to coordinate the project alongside Robbie and visiting professor of engineering Eugene Korsunskiy. At the other end of campus, the Luso-Hispanic Film Festival is bringing together students from across Spanish and Portuguese language sections for public film screenings, panel discussions, and content-based student projects. Both examples, along with five other new projects, hold great promise for succeeding beyond the pilot year.
Assessments show students becoming more aware of their own learning challenges and feeling more capable of meeting those challenges after this experience. - Prof. Michael Evans of FILM7: Mass Media and Democracy
Since its launch in 2015, the Experiential Learning Initiative has funded 42 pilot projects and formally engaged 100 faculty, 70 staff, and hundreds of students from 20 Arts and Science departments, seven co-curricular centers, and partnerships with Tuck, Thayer, and Geisel, though the official number of people engaged by the initiative is difficult to calculate. Impact extends beyond those who have received direct funding through the initiative, explains Kehoe. Countless students, faculty, staff, and community members have interacted in various ways with the courses, projects, performances, resources, conversations, and efforts connected with the initiative, and interest in the initiative and in these experiences continues to grow, she says.
Looking beyond Dartmouth, Kehoe sees synergy beginning to emerge across the wider experiential learning landscape. When the initiative began in 2015, Dartmouth was unique in defining experiential learning broadly, to include a wide spectrum of academic opportunities, off-campus programs, internships, service learning, and co-curricular experiences. Now, says Kehoe, this broad definition is being adopted at more institutions, and the field as a whole is becoming more established.
“These unforgettable learning experiences and opportunities have broadened my understanding of civil rights work and have compelled me to pursue this passion in my professional aspirations.” —Dartmouth '17 on an internship experience made possible by the Student Experiential Learning Fund
“It’s encouraging to see the principles of good practice developed by the National Society for Experiential Education being implemented more widely, and to know that Dartmouth is in sync with this development in the field,” says Kehoe.
Meanwhile at Dartmouth, Kehoe is focused on studying the impacts of the Experiential Learning Initiative and understanding what infrastructure, resources, and support are needed to maintain this level of engagement beyond the initiative’s life cycle.
“We can say confidently that this experiment has been a success, and it’s time to move beyond the experiment to make experiential learning and the value it offers to the community more permanent parts of the Dartmouth experience,” she says. “We are preparing to offer what we’ve learned back to the administration in hopes that this work will be carried forward.”
The students were pushed outside their comfort zones personally, even as their academic learning was augmented by seeing/feeling/touching/smelling aspects of Himalayan culture that they had learned about in the classroom. —Prof. Ken Bauer of ANTH 32: Anthropology of Tibet and the Himalaya