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For COE Students Eighty Percent of Success Is Showing up at the New Experiential Learning Center

Ashley Kaiser

Woody Allen famously said that “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” If students in the College of Engineering want to take advantage of this basic premise from “Life 101,” then their first step toward success is to show up at the brand new Experiential Learning Center in Marston Hall 112 and check out the myriad ways for jumpstarting their careers.

What exactly is “experiential learning” anyway? In short, it means learning from hands-on, first-hand experience. That’s what the Experiential Learning Center is all about.      

There, learning by experience is the rule, not the exception. The friendly, well-informed staff members give students insider tips on: getting internships and co-ops with some of the country’s best companies; community service learning such as Engineers Without Borders or Habitat for Humanity; locating undergraduate research opportunities; going overseas for study abroad semesters; joining student societies; or participating in community outreach programs.

Under the leadership of Cheryl Brooks, the Assistant Dean for Experiential Learning and Corporate Relations, and Sally Darby, the Associate Director for Career Planning and Student Development, the new Experiential Learning Center still does the fundamental work that was always performed by what was formerly called our Career Center. It teaches College of Engineering Students how to write expert resumes and cover letters and prepares them for career fairs where students can talk confidently to company recruiters. It hosts numerous visits by corporate representatives to network with our students. It stages mock interviews and mock career fairs so students can practice their communications skills for the real thing. It posts job, internship, and co-op opportunities.

“Experiential learning provides students with the opportunity to assume a more active role in the learning process,” says Brooks. “The general idea is that our engineering students can learn through reflection on experiences and make connections between observations and generalization of concepts in order to build understanding.  They then go on to apply the learned concepts in future experiences.  You might learn a concept in class. But when you go out and really experience it hands-on, it leads to a much more complete understanding of the original concept.”

But beyond that standard kind of experiential learning, Brooks envisioned, planned, and implemented a whole new persona for the former Career Center. Now reincarnated as the Experiential Learning Center, new things are happening at the speed of light.

Drop into the center, and a student staff member might be giving a “Career Café” talk on “Strange Interview Questions” that students have gotten during job interviews; questions like “If you could be any animal you want, what would it be?” Writer in Residence Karen Skolfield might be spending her office hours at the center helping students with graduate school applications, job applications, cover letters, or graduate student proposals for thesis papers. Entrepreneur in Residence Eric Crawley might be talking to casual visitors about their ideas for marketing a new product or their ambitions for working in a start-up company. A visiting alumnus might be spending the day giving tips to students about how to ace career fairs.

The concept for the Experiential Learning Center came about when Brooks – who, true to her Texas roots, calls herself “a numbers gal” – was studying the stats on recent graduates at the college who nail down jobs or graduate school acceptances.

“About 80 percent of our graduating students get jobs or go to grad school within 6 months of graduation,” says Brooks. “What we discovered was that there was a direct correlation between those who get internships and co-ops and those who get jobs. And there was a direct correlation between those who do undergraduate research and those who go to graduate school. Those who did not get a job or graduate school offer for the most part were those who didn’t participate in any experiential learning.”

These numbers were impossible to ignore.

As Brooks explains, “So I said to myself, ‘Well. What about the other 20 percent? What can we do to engage them in experiential learning? What else could we do to help students who didn’t get internships or co-ops or undergraduate research experiences?’ That’s really the seed of how many of our new programs came to be. We want to engage students, help them improve their learning, help them improve their resumes, and help them get jobs.”

One of the main concepts at the new Experiential Learning Center is to move beyond the career-fair pattern of brief, awkward encounters between job-seeking students and company recruiters. Instead, Brooks wants to cultivate informal, well-informed, long-term relationships between students and company contacts.

Brooks is implementing this concept in many ways. “One thing we’re doing in the new space is inviting back alumni, maybe one or two a week, who are sitting here and talking with students, one on one, very casually. It’s like office hours for faculty. The alumni come here for a couple of hours, and we let our students know they can just drop in. The student don’t dress up, they just come in their regular school clothes. It’s a casual conversation about whatever the students want to talk about.”  

The perfect example was an alumnus who actually worked for Brooks in the old Career Center many years ago. While at the Career Center, he had started down his career path with a co-op at Anheuser Busch in New Hampshire. Later he worked for the MITRE Corporation in Massachusetts, Qualcomm in California, and finally he studied patent law. Recently, he was delighted to “come home” to the center and share his experiences with many students in general and also with the Electrical Engineering Honor Society, in which he had served as president when he was at UMass.

Service learning is another emphasis of the Experiential Learning Center. For instance, the center recently hosted a representative from Habitat for Humanity doing a training session.

Related to that, Brooks recently received funding from the UMass Faculty Fellow Program to plan and teach an experiential course in community service for the fall semester of 2016. Entitled, “Bridging Engineering Theory to Practice in the Community,” the class itself will fullfill a general education requirement and will include actual projects with the Town of Amherst or with Habitat for Humanity.  Brooks noted, “I’ve met with the town engineer, the director of public works and the head of facilities for the Amherst schools, and we’re coming up with some projects. There are about 10 different ideas.”

The students will be doing community service projects such as construction of Habitat for Humanity housing, energy audits of town buildings, water quality projects, or studying bus routes from low-income housing areas to the grocery stores and figuring out how to improve transportation for low-income families.

“During the class time we’ll talk about the social construct that contribute to these problems” says Brooks. “Who has access to clean water? How do public transportation routes affect opportunities for low income neighborhoods? We’ll talk about how engineers can be socially conscious and give back to the community.”

In addition to all these formal programs for helping College of Engineering students become engaged in experiential learning, the new center also serves as a place for people just to come in, hang out, or do homework. While there, these casual visitors pick up a lot of experiential learning info by osmosis. The center becomes a community where people are all helping each other and sharing information.

“Really, the central idea of the Experiential Learning Center is connecting students to all these opportunities,” says Brooks with her customary enthusiasm. “There are numerous activities for experiential learning, and we’re creating more opportunities every day. And we need to get the word out.” (March 2016)