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The students on Middlebury’s Solar Decathlon team have done something remarkable. They have taken everything they’ve learned in the classroom and put it to work at solving an intricate, urgent problem. They have used their knowledge of math, geometry, physics, environmental science, computer science, esthetics, sociology, art, and more and applied it to a complicated puzzle. Furthermore, they have had to figure out how to research the things they don’t know, and they’ve had to learn how to work within complex systems, manage group dynamics, fundraise, negotiate, and promote their project.

I believe this is an example of what a liberal arts education in the 21st century can be—where learning both inside the classroom and out come together to create a new, dynamic set of skills and knowledge. Most importantly, this kind of learning can help students solve real-world problems.

Working through the Center for Education in Action, MiddSTART, the Project on Creativity and Innovation, and other Middlebury programs, many Middlebury students have embarked on ambitious projects. This summer, for example, seniors Ben Blackshear, Janet Rodrigues, Jacob Udell, and Kenneth Williams started an urban garden with schoolchildren in the Bronx, New York, and they raised the funds necessary to make the project a success. A visit to the MiddSTART website reveals numerous projects students are launching.

More and more students are coming to Middlebury with the expectation that they will be tackling internships, community problems, social issues, projects, and initiatives in preparation for the time when they move out into the world. They want to be able to hit the ground running—learning without the barriers of place, language, or resources. This is exactly in line with the mission of the College.

However, these outside-the-classroom opportunities are challenging those of us in higher education to re-examine our ideas about what a liberal arts education should be. There is a natural tension between the two educational modes: project-based or experiential learning vs. classroom learning. Some worry that if we move too far along the continuum of experiential learning, we will stray from our traditional liberal arts roots and become more of a preprofessional institution. Others feel that hands-on experiences are the best way for people to learn.

We are having lively conversations about these differences here at Middlebury, right now. The academic year opened with a faculty meeting that included a panel discussion about learning outside the classroom. President Liebowitz recently hosted a leadership summit with “thought leaders” about aligning our education with 21st-century demands for college graduates. I moderated a panel at the summit—Katherine Bass ’11.5, Nerissa Khan ’12, Daniel Powers ’12, and Ryan Kim ’14 spoke about the projects they are doing outside the classroom and how those connect to their intellectual interests and personal passions.

I believe this kind of learning is an essential component of a Middlebury education. If we want to continue to be relevant as an institution, we must evolve in the world we live in. The demands that are being placed on our new graduates to actively engage the world, in all of its complexity, require us to help them learn how to apply their knowledge, how to connect the dots.

Leaders at Middlebury are asking, Can we have project-based or experiential learning and still preserve the integrity of a liberal arts education? I think we can. It’s the most powerful way to do it.

But I would like to hear from you. What do you think? How does hands-on learning impact your intellectual experience? What’s your vision for a 21st-century liberal arts education?


14 Responses to “Learning by Doing”

  1. Ian McBride says:

    In addition to the many wonderful projects sponsored by MiddSTART and the Project for Creativity and Innovation, there are many student projects happening in the standard academic space with students learning by building, using research to advocate change, organizing symposia and student-run think tanks.

    If students would like to share their research, events, and start discussions MiddLab aims to provide a venue and can be contacted at middlab@middlebury.edu.

  2. I could not agree more with your opinion about the experience the Middlebury students had being involved in the Solar Decathlon. I first learned about it during President Liebowitz’s address to the freshman parents, fall of 2010. I discovered a week later that my freshman son had found out about SD and had asked his advisor how he could get involved. I have witnessed his enthusiasm and what a life-changing kind of opportunity it developed into for him, as the team progressed towards the competition. I have been completely awed by the type of global and relevant experience that these students have been a part of, and was glued to the blog and DOE website, daily, when they were in D.C. What is most impressive to me is that they accomplished all of this outside of the classroom, while still maintaining rigorous and challenging academic expectations. If this isn’t “real-World problem solving” as you refer to it, in your blog piece, I don’t know what is. What these students accomplished, is nothing short of a miracle and as the underdogs without an engineering school, architecture school, or graduate students to guide them through the process, even more significant. How could this not be an example of what a 21st century liberal arts education can and should be? In my opinion, the type of hands on learning that these students have experienced, not only represents the opportunity of a life time, but will put them leagues ahead of their peers because of it.
    I am greatly impressed by the vision of the school to enable students to participate in this project but also by the students who took on the challenge. Bravo…standing ovation for Middlebury administration and students!

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    Learning by doing is the best.

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