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Classrooms without walls

Classrooms without walls

Increasingly, educators and students alike are seeing the benefits – and the need – for the kind of learning that takes place outside the classroom.
Queen's Principal Daniel WoolfQueen's Principal Daniel Woolf says many educators are now seeing the benefits in giving students more opportunities to learn 'real-world' skills. (University Communications photo)

There has been a lot of talk lately about the value of experiential learning in higher education. Certainly, as economies and technologies shift, universities are facing increasing pressure from students, business, and governments to help address a perceived Canadian “skills gap,” while making sure they’re not producing graduates who are improperly prepared for the working world.

While universities have always helped students develop critical thinking and communications abilities that are highly valued outside the classroom, many educators are now seeing the benefits in giving students more opportunities to learn “real-world” skills.

At Queen’s, we’re working hard to increase opportunities for “experiential learning.” In disciplines from urban planning to chemical engineering, from art history to global development studies, we want our students to have more opportunities to learn by doing in class, just as Queen’s students have always learned by doing through their extra-curricular activities.

Our new Teaching and Learning Action Plan, which comprises the final recommendations of the Provost’s Task Force on the Student Learning Experience (an initiative that emerged as part of our recent strategic planning processes), will help to define and develop further opportunities for experiential learning. This includes self-sustaining curricular and co-curricular opportunities for students.

Co-chaired by Dr. Jill Scott, Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning), and Dr. Brian Frank, Sc’97, MSc’99, PhD’02, Director of Program Development in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, the task force has made 15 recommendations to advance teaching and learning at Queen’s while providing better support to our faculty, staff, and students. It also lays out the need for a Queen’s-specific definition of experiential learning, as well as a common language for its many associated terms – from internship and practicum, to community service-learning – as we work to integrate more hands-on educational opportunities for our students, both on and off campus.

When it comes to experiential education, we’re well on our way. For example, all first-year engineering students are required to participate in a 12-week team project that sees them working with campus and community groups to help solve real design problems.

This winter, students in the Master of Planning program had the opportunity to travel to India, where they put into practice everything they’d learned in class, helping officials in Auroville, an intentionally planned community in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, develop a set of indicators to assess its growth around sustainable development. There are many more examples.

But experiential learning doesn’t need to happen off campus. Opportunities for students to pursue original research – especially at the undergrad level – or to conduct lab work are just as valid and important. Active and collaborative learning spaces, such as those we recently unveiled at Ellis Hall, with their brainstorming-oriented white boards and interactive learning pods, will also help to ensure our students do more active learning without leaving the classroom.

And finally… we have taken an exciting step closer towards reaching our goal of revitalizing George Richardson Memorial Stadium. Two significant pledges – $10 million from alumni Stu and Kim Lang and $5 million from the Richardson Foundation – mean the 25-million we’ll need no longer seems so far out of reach. I am very grateful for their support and will keep you posted on our progress.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2014-2 cover]