02/04/2019 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

The Power of Connection and Experiential Learning

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A new Gallup poll links six collegiate experiences to graduates’ confidence in their future success. These six experiences are divided into two categories. First, is the relationship between a college student and his or her professors. Optimistic graduates make it clear that:

  • My professors care about me as a person.
  • I have at least one professor who makes me excited about learning.
  • I have a mentor who encourages me to pursue my goals and dreams.

Second, students who had valuable experiential learning opportunities in college say they felt well prepared for a professional life. In particular, they answered yes to the following statements:

  • While attending [university], I have had an internship or job that allows me to apply what I am learning in the classroom.
  • I have worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete.
  • I am extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations.

We’re pleased to see these experiences, in both categories, are getting the attention they deserve. Too often, the all-important human connection in learning is downplayed, especially in political conversations and policy debates about what matters in education.

Of course, we think that these six collegiate experiences also matter a great deal at the precollegiate level. The close, supportive, mentoring relationship between a teacher and a student has always been at the core of quality education. In fact, it’s the foundation of every independent school. (Another good reminder of the centrality of relationships in education is David Brooks’s recent piece in the New York Times, “Students Learn from People They Love.”)

While experiential learning is on the rise in independent schools, it’s also great to see research that supports its role in schools — especially in building student confidence for future success. There are many independent schools that offer experiential learning in the form of fieldwork, global travel and study, and through local, national, and international service trips. Increasingly, a number of independent schools are also giving high school students the opportunity for internships in various professional fields that enable them to apply and deepen what they learn. Here’s a list of a dozen independent school programs we know and admire.

Of course, we know this is just a small sampling of excellent programming in the community. If your school has a signature program that highlights in-depth experiential learning, we’d love to hear from you and feature you in a future post.

Berkshire School (MA) runs an Advanced Science and Math Research program in which students intern with a professional scientist to conduct real-world research in world-class facilities. The course culminates with a critical review paper and a research paper, both in scientific format. Berkshire also offers an Advanced Humanities Research program that introduces students to research methods in various humanities disciplines, then has the students partner with a college professor to mentor them in producing original research in the field.

Westover School (CT) established The Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Program in the early 1990s in collaboration with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with the goal of encouraging more young women to pursue careers in computer science and engineering. The two-term program includes an engineering design project completed in the junior or senior year. Students may substitute an independent research project with a formal proposal and approval by the department. Westover also offers the Sonja Osborn Museum Studies Internship that enables a junior or senior to broaden and enrich her dedication to art history through practical experience in museum work. The internship consists of a ten-week program that the student develops with Westover’s art history teacher and Hill-Stead Museum staff members.

The Seven Hills School (OH) offers a wide-range of experiential learning opportunities for its students. Students can connect with Seven Hills parents and alumni to find summer internships or job shadowing experiences that align with their career interests or in a field of study they would like to pursue in college. Students looking for a deeper exploration of an academic area of interest are able to graduate with “an area of concentration.” This work requires in-depth study in core courses plus related electives. The students also engage in a combination of job shadowing, an internship, interviews with experts, public lectures, professional conferences, and workshops. All this is followed by a Personal Challenge project.

Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) offers its Environmental Immersion Program (EIP) at the school’s Kohler Environmental Center. This is an intensive, yearlong, interdisciplinary program open to students who have a passion for understanding and preserving the natural environment. Along with environmental courses, the program requires an independent research project. The school also offers a Science Research program in which students, working under the guidance of a mentor scientist at a research facility during the summer, engage in cutting-edge research at university laboratories.

The Bullis School (MD) offers planned courses of study in four signature program areas—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Entrepreneurship, Humanities and Global Studies, and the Visual and Performing Arts. The Signature Program model provides opportunities for interdisciplinary study, experiential education, research-based culminating/capstone experiences, and student choice among curricular offerings.

St. Johnsbury Academy (VT) offers an Environmental Studies Field Semester program — an opportunity for motivated students to pursue field-based research in an outdoor setting. The program offers dual enrollment college credits at Sterling College and provides a solid foundation for pursuing further education and careers in natural resource management, ecosystem science, environmental engineering, and related disciplines.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal School (FL) has a dedicated Marine Science Center. In partnership with Mote Marine Laboratories, younger students at Saint Stephen’s engage in field studies tailored to the One Ocean curriculum. Older students explore beach and deep-water habitats via hands-on research. These students may also choose to participate in Ocean Academy, a focused course of marine science study that culminates in special recognition at graduation and transcript notation as a graduate of the SSES Ocean Academy.

Peddie School (NJ) offers a unique Creative Writing Signature Experience program designed to enable student writers to dig deeply into their literary passion. Inspired by challenging electives, visiting writers, trips on the “Culture Bus,” and dedicated faculty advisors, creative writing students not only receive extra time to focus on their writing, they meet visiting authors, participate in outside workshops, enroll in summer programs, and take leadership roles in Creative Writing Club and in the publication of the Amphion, Peddie’s art and literary magazine. They also submit their work for publication, both in the Amphion and in off-campus contests and publications, and share their work with peers at coffeehouses and other readings. The final Capstone Project is a strong portfolio of written work. A separate Research Science program at Peddie also introduces students to scientific literature, lab expectations and common laboratory techniques. With help from faculty, students then apply for summer internships in professional laboratories and research facilities. In the fall of senior year, they present their research at Peddie and act as peer mentor to new students in the program.

Rowland Hall (UT) offers a variety of summer internships, available to rising juniors and seniors. The school’s connections in the community and the parent body make this program possible, enabling students to explore career interests through practical experiences. Among recent internships, students have been involved in DNA sequencing at the University of Utah Anthropology Department; infectious disease drug discovery and development in a University of Utah Biochemistry Lab; ColoCare cancer study at the Huntsman Cancer Institute; film editing at TWIG Media, a local film production company; and political advocacy with Alliance for a Better Utah.

Sandia Preparatory School (NM) created the Odyssey Scholars program so students could challenge themselves academically, intellectually, and creatively by designing a two-year course of study that culminates in a major public presentation. This program combines the elements of independent study, senior experience, and research (capstone) projects. Projects have included social justice initiatives, a study of online businesses, the fashion industry, musical theater, and more.

Cincinnati Country Day School (OH) runs a Job Shadow and Student Internship Program. The interns see firsthand what it is like to work in a field that interests them. They garner advice about college and careers from parent and alumni hosts, and learn the value of networking. In recent years, the school has placed students in a broad range of fields, including architecture, real estate development, arts management, engineering, environmental conservation, farm-to-table businesses, fund-raising, nonprofit management, law, investment banking, and more.

Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy (HI) runs a number of signature programs, including a Sea Turtle Research program in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in which students study green sea turtles in Hawai‘i and other parts of the world. In the school’s own Energy Lab, one the world's most sustainable school building, students are also able to collaborate with peers and partner with places like NASA, the Keck Observatory, and Stanford and Cornell universities.

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