May 9th, 2018

A Centralized Approach to Supporting Experiential Learning

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experiential learning

Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, has a centralized office to foster experiential learning across disciplines. This administrative structure, which grew out of a Lilly Vocation Grant, offers several advantages over more traditional, decentralized support structures.

Experiential learning encompasses a wide range of activities, including service learning, cocurricular learning, internships, and field experience. “We made a conscious decision that we were going to try to advance experiential learning further because one of the things that we thought at the time, and that I think has been confirmed, is that experiential learning is a powerful means of discovering self-identity as well as understanding one’s place in the world,” says Lake Lambert, director of the Lilly Grant Project in the Center for Community Engagement.

Many institutions have service learning offices or administrative offices that support internships, but few take this centralized approach toward all forms of experiential learning. As at other institutions, experiential learning at Wartburg developed in different departments in different ways. One of the challenges of creating a central experiential learning office is accommodating these differences. The center was created to accomplish the following two goals:

  • Improve relations with community partners. “Our community partners were starting to feel like we were burdening them rather than helping them. We were very sensitive to that because in the college, we all sort of know where the lines are—one department versus another versus another office. But in the community, they just know that Wartburg called five times. We know that it was five different departments calling for five different things, but from their perspective, Wartburg was calling them five different times, and they wondered why they had to deal with five different people. We needed some way to coordinate the requests or contacts we were making so that our community partners didn’t feel burdened. Also, community partners didn’t know whom to call if they wanted an intern or a service project, or if they were just curious about a possible research project,” Lambert says.
  • Support faculty in their experiential learning efforts. This entails educating faculty about the community, providing faculty development and funding, and facilitating community-based projects.

The center provides funding and faculty development to encourage faculty to consider incorporating experiential learning experiences. (For the first five years, the Lilly grant funded the entire initiative. For the next three years, it will be supported by a grant that provides matching funds. Development staff currently solicits funding for the center, and strategic planning currently under way will likely make funding experiential learning a permanent budget item supporter either through the college’s endowment or operating budget.) The center’s staff also maintains close contact with community organizations to assess needs and match interested faculty with these organizations.

Recruiting faculty
Experiential learning is a long-standing feature of Wartburg’s culture. Several programs require experiential learning activities. Education majors are required to participate in field experiences in local schools, while several majors, including communication arts, fitness management, youth ministry, and campus ministry, require students to participate in internships. Other departments offer experiential learning experiences depending on faculty interest and whether experiential learning supports the learning objectives of their courses.

The center keeps a prospect list of faculty involved in or interested in experiential learning. “We have a list of faculty that we identify who we think are people we should talk to, and we also have a rating system. Faculty who we know are experienced service-learning practitioners really don’t need any more of our assistance. If anything, we use them as a resource to connect with younger faculty.

“We also know that there are some faculty members who are curious. We try to devote some attention to them, whether it’s just taking them out for coffee or buying them lunch and talking through some of the options, trying to find out more about their courses, and brainstorming with them. Then we have some faculty that we figure we’re not going to get anywhere with.”

The biggest challenge for faculty is for them to find the time to become effective experiential learning practitioners. This is why the center offers most of its faculty development in the summer.

When recruiting faculty to get involved in this type of education, it’s essential that support staff members understand the needs of each discipline. “The professional disciplines are the most interested in experiential learning—business, communications, social work, education. The sciences also have an interest in experience with experiential learning because that’s the essence of what laboratories are. So many of our scientists are curious about experiential learning,” Lambert says.

In addition to the nature of the disciplines, Lambert says that it’s important to be mindful of the nomenclature of each discipline. “We’re constantly struggling with nomenclature. What one word means in one context means something very different in another context,” Lambert says. “For example, if I’m talking to a chemist, I usually don’t use the term �service learning’ because, in his mind, that means raking leaves at someone’s house or building a Habitat [for Humanity] house. It’s much better to talk to chemists about some sort of community-based research or environmental fieldwork in collaboration with a community partner.

“If I talk to historians, service learning may not necessarily be the thing that catches them, but if I talk about public history, they get that. They know what public history with a community partner is. It’s service learning, but the term has kind of a connotation to some people that isn’t always positive.”

Another challenge for faculty and their departments is that experiential learning can cost more than classroom learning. Experiential learning may require transportation or materials. One advantage of having a centralized experiential learning office is that it can fund faculty efforts. As a result, Wartburg faculty can now bypass the department chair and seek funding directly from the central office.

The original Lilly grant funded these efforts for five years, but now a grant that’s a 50-50 match funds the center. Lambert and his colleagues are currently looking at making funding for the center permanent. “I would say that our senior administration thinks that this initiative on experiential learning is one of the key things that we have to keep, either with endowment dollars or through operating budget dollars,” Lambert says.

Development staff members currently ask for funding specifically for experiential learning. “We’re also in the middle of a strategic planning process that would likely lead to a new campaign, and experiential learning is going to be one of the key pieces of the campaign,” Lambert says.

Community priorities
Wartburg College is located in a small town, and although there is no formal advisory board, connections between the community and college personnel help to set priorities and determine mutual interests. “When you’re in a small town and you have this concentration of highly educated, civic-minded people who are faculty and staff at the college, they end up being the leaders of most of the civic organizations in the community, anyway. So we have a pretty good handle on [community priorities],” Lambert says.

In addition, the center administers a survey to community partners to determine their needs and to assess how the college helps them meet those needs. Personal connections are also essential—sitting in on local organizations’ meetings, visiting internship sites, etc.

Faculty development
The center offers new faculty orientation to the community to help them develop local knowledge. “We’re a selective liberal arts college and, like most, we conduct national searches for faculty positions. So we have faculty who come into this small town in Iowa from all over the country and around the world. One of the first issues in experiential learning is to know a little bit about the community so that you can start making those connections among the resources and the needs of the community and your discipline,” Lambert says.

The orientation is a “traveling seminar” that introduces faculty to community leaders. “The model we’re using is one that some of the land grant institutions have used for some time, where they literally put all their new professors on a bus and take them around the state because that’s part of the institution’s mission,” Lambert says.

Lambert views the role of the center as that of matchmaker. “Part of the job of the faculty members is to have a vision of what they want their students to learn. The professionals in the center have a much better understanding of the community, what it needs, and what its assets are. A lot of it really is matchmaking,” Lambert says.

In addition, the center provides faculty development. “A lot of people would say that graduate school doesn’t teach you how to teach. If it doesn’t teach you how to teach, it certainly doesn’t help you with experiential learning. We have some resources that we can put into the hands of the faculty so that they understand how experiential learning, service learning, and internships can benefit their particular discipline,” Lambert says.

Tenure
Experiential learning can be more work for faculty, which may distract tenure-track faculty from other activities that count toward tenure and promotion. However, at Wartburg, tenure is based largely on teaching quality, “so I think that our tenured and untenured faculty are always looking to be creative and fresh in their teaching,” Lambert says.

Whether faculty members decide to use experiential learning in their courses is based on whether it fits with the learning objectives of their courses.

 

Reprinted from “A Centralized Approach to Supporting Experiential Learning” in Academic Leader 24.11(2008)6,7 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.