The Rise of Experiential Learning

Imagine going to college without sitting in a 500-seat lecture hall, or working on problem sets alone in the library until the wee hours, or writing mind-numbing papers after a couple of meetings with a marginally engaged professor.  

Instead, consider being part of a team experimenting on methods of capturing carbon dioxide and storing it deep beneath the earth in carbonate minerals. Students want challenges:  projects that introduce them to problems that have no clear answers, and that require experimentation and exploration.  This is why colleges are offering extensive experiential learning.

What is experiential learning? It is learning by doing. When applying classroom knowledge to real world problems, true learning takes place. Often outcomes are unpredictable, yet, in life, this is usually the case when addressing challenges, so why should school be any different?  

Experiential learning includes cooperative education (COOP) in which a student studies economics and the efficacy of austerity measures by the IMF and World Bank,  and then works in the bond underwriting department of Goldman Sachs to witness firsthand how its Greek bonds are repaid under austerity measures enacted by the European Union.  

Some of the colleges with COOP programs that blend seamlessly into their curriculum include Northeastern, along with Drexel (Philadelphia) and Rochester Institute of Technology. Most selective engineering programs have coop programs for interested students.  A list of the top coop program offering institutions is at US News and World Report:

Then there are externships-- job shadowing; internships--working in a company for a summer; and undergraduate research with a mentor professor:  the capstone for many undergraduates, and a requirement to graduate from such colleges as Pomona, Swarthmore and Reed.   

There are also projects, extended problem solving activities, the choice experiential tools of Olin School of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. Olin is so dedicated to the importance of collaborative investigation that it requires promising candidates to spend a weekend working on a project with members of its faculty, current students, fellow applicants and admissions officers.  Its students spend 80% of their time in teams, often combining ideas from different disciplines.

Moreover, an Olin student will complete 20-25 projects over the course of his or her undergraduate years.  Richard Miller, Olin’s president, advocates that projects bolster knowledge and improve communication skills. Since Olin opened its doors in 2002, over 658 universities from 45 countries have visited to get a taste of Olin’s transformative experiential learning experiments.

Many schools offer interdisciplinary programs combining engineering, art and business departments to enable students to design, build, and market products. Stanford’s d-school pioneered this concept. USC’s Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation ( is taking it a bit further.

Working in its state-of-the-art, custom-built facility, students engage collaboratively in a curriculum featuring teams, interactive learning, mentoring from a wide array of professionals, professors, and experts across Marshall School of Business, Viterbi Engineering , Roski School of Fine Arts and beyond, culminating in ‘the Garage’, where students’ best ideas come to life.

Other campuses are equally engaged in experiential learning including Lehigh’s Mountaintop Project, MIT’s Edgerton Center, Rice’s Engineering Design Kitchen and University of Florida’s Innovation Academy. Small institutions are also sprouting up dedicated solely to experiential learning. Zeppelin University in Germany claims, “The problems with our society are ill-disciplined, and so are we!”

Yes, there are concerns with experiential learning. All these programs require a great deal of teacher time and effort with low student teacher ratios, meaning they are expensive. Olin was tuition free but soon began charging students ‘half tuition.’   There are also concerns about the comprehensiveness of training: will experiential students have gaping holes in their understanding of, say, physics, if formal learning disappears?

Indeed no educational approach is perfect. However, John Dewey, a true pragmatist, argues, “The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.” Experiential learning is composed of action and application: two of the best teachers in forming humanity.