College Considers Experiential Learning

By Guest Contributor

The Educational Affairs Committee (EAC) recently convened a working group to discuss the possibility of integrating internships, fieldwork and other types of experiential education formally into the curriculum, possibly for academic credit.

The working group, made up of faculty from a variety of disciplines, and one student, will submit its recommendations to the EAC by spring break following continued discussion and involvement from faculty and students.

One of many questions the working group will seek to answer is whether the College should grant academic credit for experiential learning.

The Education in Action Center (EIA) currently grants credit for unpaid internships during winter term under the criteria, as stated on their website, that the internship “will provide you with an experiential opportunity for exploring career options, connecting to academic work, and/or pursuing a deep personal interest.” A for-credit winter term internship requires the student to have a faculty adviser and an academic sponsor.

Many organizations and companies require that a student receive academic credit for an unpaid internship.  The College offers a transcript notation to satisfy some employers’ requirement for credit, but some students are nevertheless turned away from an internship every year because of the College’s policy, according to Special Assistant to Academic Affairs Sarah McGowen.

“We know that it is more difficult for our students to compete for those opportunities … because other schools do offer [credit],” said Assistant Director of Career Services Tracy Himmel-Isham, who added that this issue has been more problematic for students interested in certain industries including finance, communications, art and entertainment, as organizations in these fields most often require interns to work for credit.

However, the administration remains adamant that the decision to grant credits for internships will not be taken lightly.

“Credits are a big deal,” said Tim Spears, vice president for academic affairs. “So the faculty are understandably going to take a look at this issue pretty carefully.”

He added that the decision to grant credit for summer internships or fieldwork would require implementing a system to ensure quality control of the intern experience.

“The answer simply can’t be that everything that students are doing outside the classroom under the umbrella of the College is deserving of credit,” said Spears.  “That would be silly.”

Formal integration of experiential learning has been a long-discussed debate among the faculty.

“Most faculty are not opposed to students engaging in internships, fieldwork and so on, but many wonder how these [endeavors] connect to the learning goals of a liberal arts education,” said McGowen in an email.  “[The faculty] have differing views on how best to do this, but they tend to agree [that] … whatever it is we do, it should be done well; it should be a rigorous and meaningful experience for the student.”

“This has been on our docket for years and years,” said Himmel-Isham. “[The EIA] understands both sides of it.  We would never want to do anything that watered down what an academic credit means to this college.”

Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Murray Dry is among a number of faculty members opposed to formal integration of experiential education into the curriculum, although he does encourage summer work that does not distract from liberal arts course work and is not for credit.

“I am categorically against [integrating experiential education into the curriculum],” said Dry. “This constitutes a redefinition or a serious broadening or diluting of what is meant by liberal education. It’s a mistake.”

McGowen emphasized that although the possibility of granting credit for such learning experiences is on the table, this issue is just one of many to be discussed by the group. Foremost among the questions the group plans to address is defining experiential education and its appropriate role in the curriculum.

“Regardless of whether students are getting credit for internships, students can clearly learn from internships in order to enrich their lives and advance in the marketplace,” said Spears.  “[Experiential learning] fits in an interesting way with a comprehensive understanding of liberal arts learning.”

Spears defines experiential education, an expansive term, as “any educational experience that takes place outside of the classroom that either enhances, extends, speaks to, or reinforces what’s happening in the classroom.”

“Admittedly, some versions of experiential learning take up issues that are only slightly connected to what’s happening in the classroom,” Spears added.

“I would love to see students get credit for summer work when they are mentored by a faculty member,” said Liz Robinson, director of the Project on Creativity and Innovation (PCI), in an email. “But what I think is even more important is to get students to take advantage of the opportunities we are offering to apply what they are learning … whether it offers credit or not.”

PCI works to facilitate experiential learning on campus and connect real-life experiences to the classroom.

A number of experiential learning opportunities are currently available on campus through PCI and programs including MiddCORE, Solar Decathlon, Old Stone Mill and EIA’s Civic Engagement program.

Proponents of experiential learning feel that the benefits include helping undergraduate students prepare and plan for their careers.

“Internships are a huge component of that career education trajectory [when] you may be identifying an area of interest,” explained Himmel-Isham.

Dry disagreed, saying that “in terms of a job or a career, [an internship] is not the way to go about it and it certainly doesn’t serve any lifelong interest in learning.”

He added, “I think experiential education is cheating the student from the opportunity to get the most out of this very limited leisure [and] freedom from the demands of work.”

McGowen also sees potential benefits for the faculty as well students in introducing more experiential learning into the curriculum.

“[It could be] a way for faculty to enhance their pedagogy to think about … the best way that they can deliver that content,” she said.

Another major consideration of the working group is the logistics of granting credit, especially for faculty and staff involved in advising, supervising or facilitating such programs.

“Staff and faculty have priorities already,” said McGowen.  “Ideally faculty are using the summer to do research and rejuvenate themselves and if we suddenly require them to oversee internships then that’s going to be in conflict with other things that are equally important.”

The working group will also discuss whether or not to make experiential learning a graduation requirement, whether to include this option as a distribution requirement or otherwise.

Amanda Wiggans ’14.5, an intern with PCI, takes issue with the possibility of requiring students to have this type of experience before graduation.

“Then people are looking for an internship because they have to and not because it’s going to be something that they want to do, or something that is valuable to them,” she said.

Regarding implementing a for-credit internship requirement, McGowen noted, “[It’s] a question of access. Obviously not every student can afford to do an unpaid internship in the summer; they need to work for money.”

The media has recently given attention to the question of unpaid internships and academic credit for a number of reasons including the legality of unpaid work.

Moving forward, the working group has scheduled forums in the following weeks to hear the opinions of faculty and students.

“I think students are very eager to discuss how experiential learning relates to their education at Middlebury,” said McGowen.