Experiential learning essential to College’s undergraduate education

ExpLearning1Experiential learning has long been a part of the philosophy and practice of the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. In recent years, this component of the College’s undergraduate degree programs has become even more vital as employers seek out candidates with a combination of technical, analytical, communication, interpersonal and problem solving skills.

“Experience-based education is something that is integral to all undergraduate degree programs in the College,” says Dean Cameron Faustman. “In recent years, we have certainly altered what we do to better equip students for that first job from a skill-set prospective, particularly with technology.”

“The nature of what we do, the land and facilities we have and proximity to them, allow our students to gain hands-on experience that makes learning more complete, to develop the range of skills sought by employers. There is no better way to learn than by doing.”

The College’s experiential learning opportunities include co-curricular class learning, work study, volunteering, independent study, internships, Study Abroad, tutoring and student club activities. College facilities on the Storrs Campus offer a multitude of settings in which to gain hands-on experience, including research laboratories, greenhouses, the Plant Science Research Farm, animal barns, the UConn Forest, the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (CVMDL), Korey Stringer Institute, and UConn Health’s Nayden Rehabilitation Clinic.

“Many of the College’s majors require students to complete internships as part of fulfilling academic requirements,” says Sandra Bushmich, associate dean for academic programs. “In our college, this is an integral part of education. It’s so engaging. Students learn the application of science and really see what a career involves.”

ExpLearning2“Some employers are concerned by what they see in new hires as a lack of communication skills,” she notes. “An important part of experiential learning is to get students out of their head and into the world. Employers want graduates who are able to communicate well with people and explain a concept at different levels. It’s a more demanding work place. Employers are looking for transferable skill sets. They want to see that students have put their education to use.”

Bushmich, who is a professor in the Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Science and former director of the CVMDL, has worked closely with staff and students there. “The College’s staff is an invaluable resource for these experiential learning opportunities. Staff members do a tremendous amount of teaching, and some of our students form lifelong connections with them.”

Paul Gagnon, the College’s career consultant at the University’s Center for Career Development, works with local, regional and national companies to provide paid employment and internship opportunities for students. He says, “It’s a wide-reaching process. We have companies approach us on a daily basis to post positions on Husky Career Link. They do this because we work to maintain extensive relationships through events such as the annual CAHNR Career Night, held each November. We also have a loyal alumni base. Many of the College alumni provide exceptional opportunities for students.”

Gagnon spends much of his time networking. For example, most summers he attends the North American Ag and Food Human Resources Roundtable where he meets with human resources representatives from companies such as Dow, Land O’ Lakes, Tyson, Cargill and Eli Lily. This year’s conference will be held August 7-9, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

ExpLearning3“Businesses view internships as a way to see potential talent while contributing to society and the education process,” Faustman says. “Students and parents are seeking these types of experiences that add a practical aspect to education.”

Education Abroad (EA) is another hands-on experience for students. “Over the past eight years, our college has increased participation in Education Abroad learning,” Faustman points out. “A number of our faculty members participated in EA as faculty members, then started their own program for students.”

Education Abroad exposes students to various cultures, which helps them stand out to potential employers. Employers see these students as someone willing to be independent and try something new.

“Experiential learning makes education real,” Faustman says. “When you feel it, touch it, smell it, this gives context for the things that are learned in the classroom. All the body senses are engaged. A student won’t forget it.”

By Kim Colavito Markesich