Authentic Learning Experiences at the University Level

Often I’m asked whether or not authentic learning experiences are preparing our students for college. The question is never whether or not we are preparing our students for career readiness and the world beyond school. Obviously, authentic learning experiences are designed with that in mind. However, it is frequently considered by high school educators, (most notable Advanced Placement and Honors teachers) that we need to prepare our students, not for the world beyond the classroom, but for the university level. If we don’t lecture our students, make them write exhaustive research papers, and teach them how to take tests; will they truly be prepared for life at the collegiate level?

I recently was directed to a NY Times article, shared by Dr. Tony Wagner ** on Twitter, on a movement to create spaces for college students to develop their own curricular pathways that follow their learning passions. The article, A Classroom Leaves the Syllabus to the Students, discussed how Lehigh University is providing students a space and a small stipend to develop projects and products through combined research efforts. Students from a variety of departments and backgrounds have come together to produce low cost prosthetic hands controlled by back and shoulder muscles rather than electronics, improve sustainable farming practices, and create low-cost ventilation systems for cooking huts. While these students are not receiving credit for their work, their efforts have not gone unnoticed. The program is now serving as a model for other school systems and will likely see additional growth in the near future. (Perhaps, a future blog post will investigate why this model would be great for high school students, as well as college students!)

While it is impossible to state that this is widespread in all programs, there are plenty of schools that have turned to this approach to teaching in undergraduate and graduate programs alike. My alma mater, Virginia Tech, recently released an amazing update from their mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering programs. Students from these programs worked together to develop a “sustainable neonatal resuscitator” for third world countries. The cost of the equipment was under $100 and was built using common items that could be found at local hardware stores in order to fix and maintain the equipment. These students not only worked to make a positive global impact, but also worked on an authentic, career-enhancing project that will better prepare them for their post-graduate lives.

Another program that stands out in the world of authentic learning and project-based learning include Sam Houston State, which has trained much of its faculty on PBL. Their education department also has made a concerted effort to model PBL for its undergraduate teacher-training program. This move will surely better prepare these pre-service teachers to implement authentic learning once they land jobs in the public, private, and charter school systems.

There are quite a few other collegiate level programs that are incorporating authentic project based learning into their curriculums. Here are just a few additional examples of universities that are utilizing authentic PBL:

Roger Williams University

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Cal Poly San Louis Obispo

Rowan University

University of Delaware

Rice University

Regardless of the college or university that your students may attend in the future, using authentic learning experiences and project-based learning will better prepare them for innovative and critical thinking, requirements for all university students.

** As a side note: A few years ago, I wrote this blog post on Dr. Wagner’s Closing the Global Achievement Gap.

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