Organizing and running a competitive running event to raise money for a local non-profit organization. Consider a future university campus with more outdoor learning spaces. Creation of a student literary magazine. Engineering, construction, and auto racing on the frozen tundra of Houghton, Michigan. These are just a few of the ways students at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) are bringing the vision of the college’s Experiential Learning Institute (ELI) to life.
Experiential learning asks the question: what if education was less about “learning to do” and more about “doing to learn”? For several years, this basic idea has made its way through NMC, touching dozens of classes across a wide range of curricula. But the college’s experiential learning leaders say the concept reaches a whole new level in 2022. Not only does NMC’s recently adopted strategic plan codify experiential learning as a top priority, but this week also marked the first-ever college’s ELI Learning Symposium, which was held Monday through Thursday at the Timothy J. Nelson Innovation Center.
ELI is co-directed by Kristy McDonald and Brandon Everest, business and sociology instructors respectively, who have spent the past few years taking experiential learning at NMC from a fringe experience to one of core college values.
For McDonald, the experience began in a classroom aimed at helping students develop professional communication skills. While the course’s key concepts were valuable, McDonald says the delivery of the program — which relied heavily on mock projects — consistently failed to engage students in any meaningful way.
“Students were writing fake letters, writing fake news reports, and talking about all these fake scenarios,” McDonald says. “And retention was low, and grades were low, and writing was low, and motivation was low, and I was low. It wasn’t a fun class to teach. I loved my other classes, but this professional communication course, I couldn’t do it. I finally asked myself, ‘What would motivate [my students]? And then I realized, ‘Well, real life would motivate them. What if, instead of writing a fake letter, they had to write a real letter? »
This idea, of removing fictional elements from the course and turning them into real experiences, formed the basis of McDonald’s revamped professional communication program. All of the core concepts would be the same, but they would now be linked to a student-led project with real community touchpoints and real community impact.
Ultimately, McDonald hatched a plan with Tony Anderson, CEO of Cherryland Electric and longtime advocate for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Michigan (Bigs), to take over management of the annual Big Race. Little Hero by Bigs.
“Tony was getting tired of doing this race alone every year,” McDonald told The Ticker. “I said to him, ‘I wonder if the students could do it.'”
Held each spring, Big Little Hero is a superhero-themed running event with 5K and 10K races, as well as a fun 1-mile race for the kids. 100% of proceeds go to Bigs, but McDonald’s students take responsibility for planning and executing the event. “They do all the work around it,” she says. “They write the letters to the sponsors; they handle all the real email interactions; they write their own press release; they go to the different companies they ask to sponsor and have meetings.
The Big Little Hero race marked its seventh annual event last month, returning after a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the race itself, this year’s event featured live music, a silent auction, a giant inflatable obstacle course, and more. Each student in McDonald’s Professional Communication course has taken on a different job in planning the race – from sponsorship coordinator, to registration strategist, to food and beverage coordinator – and their combined efforts have led to an event that raised over $5,000 for the Bigs. This money will be used to enroll 11 children in NMC’s College for Kids program this summer.
Reflecting on this year’s Big Little Hero event during an ELI Learning Symposium session on Wednesday afternoon, students spoke fondly of the personal and professional impacts the course had had on them. Matthew Bodnar, a returning adult student who handled the accounting for the Big Little Hero project, noted how his work with a sponsor landed him a professional opportunity outside of the classroom. Other students said that managing a project with measurable impact and real-world issues pushed them out of their comfort zone and forged a strong camaraderie with their classmates in a way that more traditional courses don’t. generally do not.
Beyond Big Little Hero, the ELI Symposium also featured findings, reflections, and end-of-semester artifacts from a wide variety of other experiential learning offerings at NMC.
One such artifact was the buggy (pictured) that the NMC Motor Sports Club designed and built to compete in an endurance race held at Michigan Tech University (MTU) in February. The race, called “Blizzard Baja”, is designed to destroy cars, with ice, bumps, jumps, single-digit temperatures and other brutal conditions baked into the experience. The idea is to test the students’ engineering work by seeing which car holds up well enough to complete the most laps of the course in four hours. Despite being the only community college in this year’s race – and despite a mid-race failure where one of the wheels broke and had to be welded – NMC placed third, beating big university competitors like the University of Michigan and Purdue. .
Another unique project highlighted at the Symposium, titled “Bridging Waterways Across the Americas,” connected students from the NMC Freshwater Studies program with biology and environmental engineering students from the La Salle University in Bogota, Colombia. According to Costanza Hazelwood, who taught the course, the project not only created powerful relationships between students that transcended geographic and language barriers, but also gave students a more holistic perspective on water resources and their management. While most of the class took place via Zoom, it will culminate this spring with an exchange program. The Colombian students will join their NMC classmates in Traverse City later this month, while the NMC students are scheduled to travel to Bogota in June.
For Everest, a big part of the fun of the symposium was seeing all the different ways that experiential learning has been interpreted and embraced by different segments of the college. He expects the NMC’s new strategic plan – which aims for “every degree-seeking student” to have at least one experiential learning opportunity during their time at the NMC – will only lead only to bolder experiments in the future.
“We have already designated 50 one-semester courses that provide immersive experiential learning opportunities,” says Everest. “And the students are very clear: they want to learn in this kind of format. It’s one thing to learn sociology from a textbook; it’s quite another to go out and do service in a homeless shelter. Engaging in this kind of project is relevant and changes the investment, and the students talk about it. Persistence, retention, grades in these experiential learning classes are very high, and students tell us they just wish we had more.