Feature Stories

Innovative initiative

UGA student body President Johnelle Simpson spent the Maymester term in China with a study abroad program. On the flight over-his first time leaving the country-he wrestled with misgivings. Would anyone speak English? Would he like the food?

He quickly learned the answer to both questions was yes, and Simpson says the immersive experience brought a new perspective to his classes this semester.

"When the markets crashed in China and we were talking about it in my finance class ..., I was able to relate," he says. "Beyond academics there's a whole relatability piece to it and being able to understand it even more."

That's exactly the kind of benefit that's expected next fall when the University of Georgia's new experiential learning requirement goes into effect. All incoming undergraduates will be required to engage in hands-on learning prior to graduation, and UGA will become the largest public university in the nation to ensure that each of its students has transformative experiences such as internships, study abroad, service learning or research.

"With a spirit of innovation and a deep commitment to student learning, faculty at the University of Georgia continue to push the boundaries of undergraduate education," says UGA President Jere W. Morehead (JD '80).

UGA's experiential learning requirement is new, but students have been taking advantage of hands-on learning opportunities for years. Ricky Patel (center) worked as an intern for Dr. J. Benjamin Patrick in 2009. At left, Patel (BS '11) and dental assistant Tiffany Well (right) assist Patrick as he performs dental bleaching on a patient.UGA's experiential learning requirement is new, but students have been taking advantage of hands-on learning opportunities for years. Ricky Patel (center) worked as an intern for Dr. J. Benjamin Patrick in 2009. At left, Patel (BS '11) and dental assistant Tiffany Well (right) assist Patrick as he performs dental bleaching on a patient. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

 "Offering a tailored, hands-on experience to our undergraduate students not only will further enhance this institution's world-class learning environment but also will further distinguish them as graduates."

Experiential learning is often defined simply as "learning by doing."

The American Association of Colleges and Universities includes experiential learning on a list of high-impact educational practices that have been widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds. Research suggests that these practices increase rates of student retention and student engagement while improving students' ability to analyze and synthesize information.

Studies also show that benefits may include "improved academic performances, increased content knowledge and greater ability to apply that knowledge," says Tim Cain, associate professor and historian at UGA's Institute of Higher Education.

Pamela Whitten, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, notes that in addition to enhancing learning, hands-on experiences help position students for success after graduation.

"Our students will have a competitive edge when they apply for graduate school or begin their careers because of the experiences they have gained through this requirement," she says.

Linda Bachman (EdD '13), UGA's director of experiential learning, started working on the initiative in 2014, chairing a committee that explored what the program might look like. After the requirement was approved, she worked with UGA's schools and colleges to draft plans for how each would define the activities that fulfill the requirement.Linda Bachman (EdD '13), UGA's director of experiential learning, started working on the initiative in 2014, chairing a committee that explored what the program might look like. After the requirement was approved, she worked with UGA's schools and colleges to draft plans for how each would define the activities that fulfill the requirement. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

Linda Bachman (EdD '13), UGA's director of experiential learning, spent more than a year laying the groundwork for the initiative. In 2014 she chaired a university-wide committee that explored what an experiential learning program might look like, resulting in the requirement that was passed in April by University Council.

UGA's initiative is ambitious, Bachman says, and aims to provide the kind of experience that's normally found at a small liberal arts college.

"To be able to deliver something that's hands-on and personalized to this many students-that's a challenge, and it's one we're up to."

Each student will be able to select from a diverse slate of opportunities that reflect his or her individual interests and aspirations. The requirement will not increase the number of credit hours required to earn a degree, and the majority of experiential learning opportunities come with no additional cost.

Bachman spent summer and fall working one-on-one with the deans and curriculum committees of UGA's schools and colleges to determine how each would define the activities that fulfill the requirement.

"The question [was] how much, how rigorous, how independent?" Bachman says. "What's the line at which an experiential learning opportunity meets the requirement?"

The resulting plans for each school and college-approved in October by the University Curriculum Committee-include a list of already-existing courses or programs that meet the requirement. They run the gamut from internships to service learning to field schools to study abroad to research, and Bachman expects that each school and college will continue to develop additional opportunities.

UGA's experiential learning requirement is new, but the concept is not. The university has a strong history of providing such opportunities to its students-particularly through study abroad, service learning, research and internships.

UGA is consistently among the nation's top universities for study abroad participation, ranking 17th on the 2014 Open Doors report on the number of U.S. students studying abroad. More than 7,300 UGA students participated in service-learning courses in the last academic year. And during the past 15 years, more than 2,000 undergraduates have participated in classes, summer research fellowships, and assistantships through the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO).

At UGA, conducting research with a faculty member is associated with better GPAs and more timely degree completion, says Martin Rogers (MA '01, PhD '10), associate director of the Honors Program and CURO.

"The thinking is that the more hands on the learning is, the more committed and successful the students will become," he says.

Cain says the requirement has the potential to significantly change the university by integrating experiential learning into the fundamental concepts of undergraduate education.

"Over time, it has the chance to become part of what the UGA experience is known for-what students come to expect as a core part of their education," he says.

Although the experiential learning requirement goes into effect next fall, financial support for it is building. The UGA Athletic Association established a $1 million endowment for the initiative, and Morehead also established a scholarship fund to support undergraduates pursuing experiential learning opportunities.

Bachman also is working on generating new partnerships. When the Oconee Hills Cemetery, located in Athens, approached her to discuss how they might work with students, Bachman listened to their needs-help with mapping, GPS and history-and immediately thought it would be a good fit for UGA's Willson Center for Humanities and Arts. The Willson Center agreed, setting the stage for a future partnership with the potential for research projects, student internships and course-based service learning.

In 2014, Anquilla Deleveaux (right) was a CURO student working on research with Anna Karls (left), associate professor of microbiology. Above, Deleveaux (BS '15) cultures plates with strains of salmonella.In 2014, Anquilla Deleveaux (right) was a CURO student working on research with Anna Karls (left), associate professor of microbiology. Above, Deleveaux (BS '15) cultures plates with strains of salmonella. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

"It's a good example, I think, of a community partnership that has many different levels of engagement in many different dimensions of experiential learning," she says.

But the bottom line is what students will take away from these experiences, Bachman says.

"We have fantastic students, and a lot of them are seeking out experiential opportunities on their own, even without a requirement, and that's great," she says. "But we owe it to every single one of our students to make sure that they have this kind of enriched educational experience that really does equip them to take their education out into the world and be immediately effective. Making it a requirement means that those students who aren't already seeking it out are going to ... have the benefit of this experience."

As a senior, Simpson is not subject to the university's new experiential learning requirement. But the president of UGA's Student Government Association says the trip to China opened his mind to the international world, and he sees value in making such experiences mandatory for future generations of students.

Rogers agrees.

"Over and over again you hear from the students that these are transformational experiences," he says. "They have tremendous influence on how students continue on with their path or choose a career."

— Allyson Mann, Georgia Magazine

(This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Georgia Magazine.)

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