The University of Cincinnati is a leader in experiential learning, bringing together professors and students from multiple disciplines to tackle real-world problems.
Story and photos by Alana Frew
Editor’s note: Alana Frew is a student in the UC Forward course called “Natural Disasters.”
Picture this: University of Cincinnati computer science and fashion design students working with the Cincinnati Art Museum to create a digital archive of a famous fashion collection.
Or imagine a group of UC students documenting an adventure race that will be broadcast on national television.
Or a course that examines the effects of Hurricane Hugo on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands 25 years after the storm hit.
UC Forward, a groundbreaking program designed to foster experiential learning at the university, is offering 21 of these types of courses that put students in real-world situations to learn by doing.
What is UC Forward?
UC Forward, which the university introduced in 2011, is an initiative that challenges students to think within and even outside of their disciplines to create solutions or new ideas. It’s overseen by the Office of the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and the Provost at UC.
Although other colleges have developed experiential learning courses, UC is the only university in the U.S. with an office that’s solely focused on it.
“We’re not copying someone else. We’re leading the way,” said Gigi Meyer Escoe, vice provost for undergraduate affairs.
The university is investing in experiential leaning because it helps students gain problem-solving skills and become better at working with others and in groups, a common scenario in the professional world, Escoe said.
What is experiential learning?
Experiential learning is learning by experience versus learning from books or less practical applications.
Many employers have a hard time finding graduates with these skills, Escoe said. In an era where students can get degrees online, this concept, along with co-ops, internships and study abroad programs, adds value to a campus education.
“(The students) are solving real problems,” Escoe said.
The idea for UC Forward came from faculty, said Cory Christopher, director of UC Forward. It takes significant work to develop a UC Forward course, and the fact that faculty are eager to be involved shows dedication, Christopher said.
“It’s much easier (for faculty) to create a lecture course, but to do this for students enriches their education,” he said.
University of Cincinnati students and faculty take photos at a marina in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The trip was part of the UC Forward course, “Natural Disasters.”
Some courses offered more than once
Some UC Forward courses are repeated or continued because the subject matter cannot be covered in just one semester, or because students get so much out of the experience.
The university has offered “Gold Rush Documentary,” a UC Forward course taught by electronic media professor Kevin Burke, for three years. The idea for it came from a former student in the UC College-Conservatory of Music, Brian J. Leitten, who suggested that electronic media students film the Gold Rush Expedition Race in California.
Students filmed the race for the first time in 2012. The documentary of this year’s race, which took place in September, will premiere on the Universal Sports Network in spring 2015.
“Bonnie Cashin: Documenting a Fashion Icon” is a course that has created a digital archive of a clothing collection by the famous American designer of the 1960s and ’70s. The collection was discovered within the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning at UC. Computer science students organized data from the collection and fashion design students compiled it.
The university first offered the course in spring 2013, and it is now a capstone class.
Other UC Forward courses have focused on sustainable urbanism in China, reflections on poverty and the importance of science communication.
Classes make an impact
During fall semester, a UC Forward course called “Natural Disasters” focused on the effects of Hurricane Hugo, a storm that 25 years ago hit the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Arnie Miller, professor of paleontology at UC, pushed for the development of the course. During graduate school, Miller was a research student at the West Indies Lab on St. Croix when the hurricane struck. The storm destroyed the lab, along with many other structures on the island.
Years later, after making several trips to St. Croix, Miller noted that the island still was dealing with the impact of Hugo, as well as other problems. For example, most of the food on the island is imported.
When Miller realized this year would be the 25th anniversary of the hurricane, he took action. He reached out to professors from other disciplines at UC to help run the course. It’s not unusual for a UC Forward course to be taught by several professors.
Ultimately, professors from five disciplines — ecology, history, industrial design, journalism and sociology — taught the course.
Professors selected students from their disciplines, graduate or undergraduate, to be in the class. They traveled to St. Croix in early October to hear community members describe how the storm impacted their lives and the island.
Kristin Fleming, a history graduate student, learned from the people she talked to on the trip, including employees at the hotel where the students stayed. It helped her realize what experiential learning is all about.
“You can’t really understand a place without going there,” Fleming said. “Even the simplest encounters can give you the ultimate perspective.”
Coordinating a course like “Natural Disasters” can be tricky because funding can come from multiple colleges within UC and because of the time conflicts of students and professors. Still, many professors, including Miller, don’t mind.
“A course like this presents logistical challenges, but it’s well worth it,” Miller said.
The course already has exceeded Miller’s expectations, and he’s convinced it’s making an impact.
“It’s more than just an experiential learning experience,” Miller said. It’s bringing together an eclectic group of people for a common purpose.
“I think we need more of this at the university, and it’s going to be the future,” he said.
A University of Cincinnati student walks along Christiansted Harbor in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Students and faculty went to St. Croix early October for the UC Forward course, “Natural Disasters.”
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