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The High Impact of Experiential Learning

Hands-On Experiences Benefit Students and the University

Aug. 5, 2013

young woman in lime green T-shirt teaches youngsters to dance.

Health science major Crystal Mendoza teaches hip-hop dance for fitness and health to students at Santa Ana's Walker Elementary School. Her internship has led to a paid position.

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Experiential learning – also known as high-impact practices in higher education circles – is receiving keen attention among educators nationwide, including those at Cal State Fullerton, who want to prepare and graduate successful students. These kinds of hands-on practices – including study abroad, service-learning, internships, community engagement, undergraduate research and other outside-the-classroom, innovative instructional experiences – have long been benefits of a Cal State Fullerton education.

Still, one of the objectives of the University's recently adopted strategic plan is to increase by 25 percent the number of CSUF students participating in these types of experiences. Another objective is to ensure that 75 percent of CSUF students participate in at least two of these high-impact practices before graduation. Both of these address one of President Mildred García's top priorities: To improve the University's six-year graduation rate and become a national model public comprehensive institution when it comes to student learning, retention and graduation.

Here, students and faculty members share their views on the vital importance of hands-on learning experiences and their value both prior to and following graduation.

UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH

Sophomore physics major Daniel Vander-Hyde, 19, of La Habra is performing research this summer at the University of Pisa in Italy, thanks to his yearlong research experience with physicist Joshua Smith.

Smith, assistant professor of physics and director of CSUF's new Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy Center, involves undergraduates like Vander-Hyde in research into gravitational-wave detection. Such research is important because ripples of space-time curvature and black holes would confirm Albert Einstein's 1916 General Theory of Relativity and open new ways of exploring the universe.

Smith believes under-graduate research is particularly vital to students' scientific experience. "In the classroom, students are exposed to things already understood. Far fewer students are exposed to the mysteries of science," Smith explained. "Research exposes you to the big open questions that are out there, what pushes forward human understanding."

For his part, Vander-Hyde said he not only values the laboratory experience, but writing and presenting scientific papers and interaction with other scientists. "This research has opened me up to meeting more people in and beyond the department," he noted. "It has a lot of value to any student."

Senior computer engineering major Noah Gampe, 24, of Bellflower will intern this summer at Emulex Corp. in Costa Mesa because of what he calls "life-changing" research with Kiran George, assistant professor of computer engineering.

"Being a research assistant is totally different than being in class, because there is no syllabus; there are no study groups, and no one to hold your hand," Gampe said. "The whole point of research is to try to think about the unknown, something, somewhere that has no textbooks, tutorials or guidelines."

George agrees, noting that in the laboratory students "get to dirty their hands by working on real-world problems instead of just learning from textbooks." He and his students use a supercomputing cluster, or group of high-performing machines capable of high-end processing, to conduct technological and scientific research for real-world projects focusing on advancing digital receiver technology.

"Undergraduate research gives students a context to what they're doing and why they're learning what they are," he added. "When they work on research, they connect the dots."

FIELD RESEARCH

For senior biological science major Nicole Tronske, 22, of Chino Hills, her independent field research into the density and habitat distributions of two different oyster species has allowed her to develop on-the-spot critical thinking, teamwork and troubleshooting skills, in addition to exposing her firsthand to science.

"I truly found what I love to do," Tronske said. "It was critical to do undergraduate research if I really wanted to continue as a graduate student in marine biology, but now I ultimately want to do research for the rest of my life." Tronske is a scholar in the Southern California Ecosystems Research Program co-directed by Bill Hoese, associate professor of biological science.

"The goal of the University is to train students to become productive members of society," Hoese said. "In field research, these students pursue new knowledge, learn what it means to conduct a good experiment and communicate the results. There are all sorts of short- and long-term benefits to the University. These are a community of scholars who work together, study together, use each other as a resource."

Another SCERP scholar, Cristy Rice, 29, of Alta Loma, is a junior biological science major studying the morphology of pipefish, a little-known species whose males carry offspring.

"Doing fieldwork has been a tremendous experience that has solidified my desire to do that kind of work as a marine biologist researcher," Rice said. "During field research, you are forced to problem-solve, to troubleshoot in situations rather than having time to think about it. You have to take all the knowledge you've learned and utilize it. You can only apply so much in the classroom."

COLLABORATIVE ASSIGNMENTS AND PROJECTS

Archana McEligot, professor of health science, was awarded two grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address the growing problem of childhood obesity, particularly in underrepresented communities. One of the grants has led McEligot, together with community organizations, to develop Comidas y Comunidades Saludables, which trains a diverse workforce to address obesity in the Hispanic immigrant population.

Through their CCS projects, not only do students build relationships throughout the community, but they apply the knowledge they've gained in class and see its relevance, McEligot said. "It brings in new thoughts and new ideas," she noted.

Under the CCS program, junior health science major Crystal Mendoza, 22, of Anaheim teaches hip-hop dance for fitness and health to students at Santa Ana elementary and junior high schools. Mendoza is pleased that the children wrote in journals that, at the end of the eight-week class, they felt and ate healthier and were losing weight.

"I like it because it's hands-on," Mendoza said of her internship with THINK Together's Active Learning, which has led to a paid position with the organization. "You learn in health science classes about the childhood obesity rate, but I see how I can do something about it rather than just writing papers or giving speeches. I'm able to work with children and actually manage their weight."

FRESHMAN PROGRAMS

The Freshman Programs experience is one of the reasons freshman biological science major Christy Martinez, 18, of Hawthorne chose to come to Cal State Fullerton last fall.

"I was already nervous about college," Martinez recalled, and participating in the yearlong program – featuring the University 100 course, a home-away-from-home Lava Lounge specifically for Freshman Programs students, mentoring, tutoring and guidance – helped her make the adjustment to college.

"I really struggled in the first semester," Martinez said. "I didn't know how to register for classes or how to get my work done, but the staff is always there to help. Tutoring through the program helped in my struggle with math and physics. University 100 helped me out, providing a lot of skills, such as how to study, time management and working with a budget," she added.

Joel Aposta, a freshman studying mechanical engineering, agreed that Freshman Programs has provided him with a support system of friends, mentors and advisers. "It's forced me to become more mature, and taught me that no one in college is going to hand you anything – you must be independent," said Aposta, 19, of Orange.

Nancy Page Fernandez, director of freshman programs, noted that University 100 is the gold standard of first-year seminars, providing students with the academic and practical skills they need to succeed in college. "The students are so involved mentally, physically and socially in learning that they are learning at maximum capacity. They develop relationships and make connections between classes."

STUDY ABROAD

Tara Rowlodge, 24, of Yosemite said studying for a year in Korea changed both her perspective and her career goals. The human services major wanted to become a marriage and family therapist, but now plans to return to Korea to teach English. Studying abroad was the best decision she ever made. "It challenges your view of yourself and the world," Rowlodge said. "The biggest learning experience is learning about yourself."

Lay Tuan Tan, director of international programs, agrees that global studies are a life-changing experience for students. "Being open-minded, culturally sensitive, learning about the interdependent global community, applying problem-solving and critical thinking skills – these are all part of global learning," Tan said. "It's important for the University because our University mission statement refers to promoting a global outlook and global learning. I think all our students should become global citizens and learn to analyze issues on a global scale."

INTERNSHIPS

For Eric Don, 21, of Buena Park, last summer's internship in the sales department of ABC-7 prepared him for his ultimate career goal of becoming a management consultant. During the summer, he gained experience in every facet of sales, from analysis of Nielsen ratings to market research, promotions and experience on-set and in-studio.

"Internships are important. You can't replicate that professional experience in the classroom," the 2013 business administration graduate said. "One of the issues is pressure – the real-world experience puts a good pressure on students to perform at a high standard. Another is networking – there is no better way to network with people who share their experiences and ultimately may leverage their connections to help you."

CAPSTONE COURSES AND PROJECTS

His love for the automotive industry drove mechanical engineering major Derek Bosman, 20, of Escondido to join the 2012-13 College of Engineering and Computer Science student team building Titan VI, a Formula-SAE race car displayed at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April. The team competed this summer at the 2013 Formula SAE at Lincoln Airpark in Lincoln, Neb.

The collegiate student design competition is organized by SAE International (formerly Society of Automotive Engineers) and attracts more than 80 teams from universities worldwide. The CSUF team has about 30 participants, including members from the college's Society of Automotive Engineers and American Society of Mechanical Engineers student chapters.

Bosman said his two-year participation in the program provides hands-on opportunities to apply the theories he's learned in the classroom. "You know instantly what you need to work on, and what you don't know," he said. "It's taught me a lot about the ways I can improve both academically and professionally."

John Chi, 42, of Alhambra is a graduate student in CSUF's Program for Applied Biotechnology Studies. Chi participated in the recent Center for Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition, which required teams of students to develop and present business plans before a panel of judges, competing for prize money and connections to venture capital firms for businesses they hope to launch.

He worked with three other students from diverse majors on developing Synova Life Sciences, an innovative new scientific company. "I really can't imagine a better place to cut our teeth in preparing and presenting our business plan," Chi said of the competition. "I'm pretty comfortable in a lab or in a technical position or in my current job, but this totally pushed me out of my comfort zone."

John Bradley Jackson, the center director and CSUF lecturer in management, said that the business plan competition, like other special projects requiring teamwork and business development, challenges students to take concepts and redefine them in real terms. "I'm a huge believer in applied learning," Jackson said. "It's one thing to hear a lecture or read a book, but to take that content and do something meaningful with it... that's a high-impact learning experience."

By: Cathi Douglas, 657-278-4850

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