Celebrating experiential education's pandemic successes

During this “Year of Teaching and Learning Remotely,” as it might be called, the staff at the YU Experience Hub at York University decided it was time to celebrate the many successes in experiential education (EE).

Kathleen Winningham

Kathleen Winningham

The entire York community – faculty, staff, students and community partners – pulled together this year to ensure that students were engaged in learning and had access to experiences that added depth to their lessons, said Kathleen Winningham, director of the YU Experience Hub. Winningham and her team organized two separate events to applaud the efforts of faculty, students and community partners for the extra effort it took to make EE meaningful during the pandemic.

The Jan. 28 EE Symposium offered the virtual version of an annual event that focuses on students, promoting EE and its potential to help them develop broader perspectives and new skills.

With Winningham as the emcee, the program began with remarks by York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton.

“Experiential education, also known as hands-on learning, is such a fundamental component of how we can best prepare our students to really reflect on learnings in the classroom,” Lenton said.

Will Gage

Will Gage

Professor Will Gage, associate vice-president of teaching and learning and a symposium co-sponsor, recounted how his own EE experience had diverted him from being a high school teacher to an entrepreneur to an academic, noting, “EE is going to shape your life if you let it, and that’s a really great thing.”

Joy Kirchner, dean of Libraries and a symposium co-sponsor, also offered a welcome to participants, saying, “It’s always thrilling to hear how EE has made a difference in your studies and future prospects.”

Joy Kirchner

Joy Kirchner

Following the opening remarks, the audience was treated to a panel of both students and faculty offering insights into why and how EE can be so rewarding and such a valuable experience. Lisa Endersby, an educational developer from The Teaching Commons, served as the moderator.

For example, Carolyn Steele, who teaches in the Department of Humanities and is part of the Cross-Campus Capstone Classroom (C4) teaching team, told the audience that thanks to EE, students “get to understand the world is a much broader place … They start learning that there are all sorts of things people do in the world. It’s a process of self-discovery and realization.”

Education student Yasmine Raymond-Wilson offered a participant’s perspective, noting that her EE experience “helped me think about what my role as a teacher is and starting me thinking about how I could start giving back to my community and my field.”

Then came the meat of the program: poster presentations by students who had participated in EE. Eleven students/groups of students showcased their posters, displaying the impact of experiential work of all types, such as determining the insect biodiversity on the Glendon Campus; operating a mediation clinic to resolve small legal claims and volunteering with the Georgian Bay Métis Council.

Hammad Saif, for instance, spoke on behalf of his group of eight students, Trauma Link, who worked with the Yonge Street Mission from September to April to figure out how to help the facility help adults suffering from trauma and get them better help and support. They created an online hub to give professionals working for non-governmental organizations access to the best practices in trauma therapy.

In addition to gaining workplace skills, Saif said, “Having a guiding vision for yourself so you can track your growth and progress is important. EE is about what you learn and what you get out of the experience as an individual.”

Meanwhile, a Feb. 4 celebration – the second annual – focused on faculty and the efforts they have put providing their students with rich, participatory experiences, whether in the classroom, the community or a workplace setting.

The faculty response to participating in the event was so enthusiastic, that some of the participants created asynchronous presentations that were made available in advance on the YU Experience Hub website: Jennifer Bolt from the Department of Dance in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Dance; Gail Fraser and Tarmo Remmel from the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change; and Eva Peisacovich from the School of Nursing, Faculty of Health. Six members of the team that teaches and oversees the Cross-Campus Capstone Classroom (C4), also joined together to showcase the interdisciplinary projects that engage and challenge students.

Remmel, for example, created a humorous video that included him in many of the frames, talking directly to his students. He offered some basic tips to his colleagues for ensuring that students learned the course material:

  • Create simple illustrations and animations;
  • Very good diagrams help; make sure they are well-labelled and large enough;
  • Go beyond the basics and insert yourself into the presentation; and
  • Keep it real. Allow yourself to be human and imperfect.

The C4 video offered both faculty and student perspectives on the value of hands-on, interdisciplinary efforts to solve real problems in the workplace.

“When you get to work with people who have a different point of view or a different work flow, you learn different things, new things and you improve yourself,” said Abkar Khan, a software engineering student who took part in C4.

Other faculty members appeared live to share their experiences with their colleagues about transitioning EE in the classroom, community and workplace online, given the move to remote course delivery.

For example, Mojgan Jadidi, an assistant professor of geomatics at the Lassonde School of Engineering, described how she created a virtual topographic surveying course with the help of the Lassonde Educational Innovation Studio.

“We had to create an immersive student experience,” she said. “We created a topographical surveying game that simulated the fieldwork normally done in person. This is a crucial component of the course, and the game allowed them to see the impact of their data collection and calculations.”

Each of the presenters was able to offer pointers and lessons learned, allowing their colleagues to revisit their own courses and incorporate helpful hints.

“Both events showcased how students and faculty have been able to pivot during the pandemic to keep experiential education thriving,” said Winningham. “It was a pleasure to celebrate the great work taking place at York.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer

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