Experiential Learning: Where Theory and Practice Meet

The Experiential Learning Initiative brings the classroom to the world—and vice versa.

An anthropology class on human evolution travels to South Africa to meet leading scientists and study the fossil record directly at archaeological sites. Architecture students design projects to improve a public space and participate in a forum in New York City. Students studying American poetry collaborate with local high school students to share knowledge and perform poetry.

These are just a few of the dozens of projects being supported through the Experiential Learning Initiative, which was launched last year to promote and expand opportunities for students to apply classroom knowledge to the broader world—and vice versa.

Ashley Kehoe
Ashley Kehoe (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

“We’re looking at experiential learning broadly, across the spectrum of academic opportunities, study abroad, service, and co-curricular opportunities,” says Ashley Kehoe, the initiative’s associate director. “We’re defining experiential learning as students engaging in an intentional experience, reflecting on that experience, and then making connections between their academic work and these experiences.”

Now a year old, the initiative has provided seed funding for more than 30 projects that reflect a range of experiential learning across the liberal arts. Among them: an intergenerational project in which students learn about dementia and work with people with Alzheimer’s disease; a hands-on book arts workshop with renowned artist and letterpress printer Amos Kennedy, as part of a course on “Mass Media and Democracy”; two fall-term economics courses that will culminate in trips to Poland and China, respectively, during the December break; and much more.

The initiative also administers the Stamps Leadership Scholars Awards, through which students design their own experiential learning program. A Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) assessment team is studying the impact of experiential learning on students’ ability to innovate, take risks, solve complex problems, collaborate, and think critically.

“We’re trying to help faculty teach in the way that they feel called to teach,” says Kehoe. “We’re removing the barriers, providing the support, and getting out of their way.”

“We see ourselves as revealing demand that already exists,” says Lisa Baldez, Cheheyl Professor and Director of DCAL, which coordinates the initiative. “We want to use the initiative to highlight this work in order to make the case for the projects we want to sustain over time.”

Faculty have not always had easy access to resources to put into practice their ideas for experiential learning because, for example, budgets for such projects may vary widely from department to department, says Baldez, a professor of government and Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies. “Faculty have had to kind of go hat in hand to get resources to do things that are relatively simple, like a trip to Boston or supplies or access to the pottery studio.”

Lisa Baldez
Lisa Baldez (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

Part of the goal of the initiative is to streamline these resources—whether financial or logistical—and encourage and sustain good ideas.

“What I find most exciting about the Experiential Learning Initiative is that it aligns with things that Dartmouth faculty are already doing and the ways that Dartmouth faculty are already teaching,” Baldez says. “This is a way to pull together all of the things that Dartmouth faculty are doing in and out of the classroom and to say, ‘This is Dartmouth.’ ”

In the coming year, Kehoe will be looking forward to engaging with students more, she says.  “We just partnered with the Center for Professional Development to create an experiential learning fund to help students attend conferences, do research projects with non-Dartmouth faculty, and do summer internships—to give students access to the means to do projects that can enhance and complement their academic experience.”