Virginia Tech has been actively exploring new and innovative ways to best educate its students for the future. This has meant challenging the traditional modes academic instruction, and thinking outside the classroom walls.

One example of how Virginia Tech is doing this can be seen the School for Public and International Affairs (SPIA). Susan Sterett and Adam Eckerd teach in the Center for Public Administration and Policy. They led a roundtable discussion at the Network of Schools and Public Policy, Affairs and Administration’s annual meeting detailing how their experiential learning courses put into practice innovative learning experiences.

“Doing a real-world project forces students to deal with ill-structured problems which is one of the outcomes that everybody wants for higher education,” Sterett said. “Students learn how to focus questions and how to present information really clearly and that is really important for the intellectual effort of the university as well.”

Sterett emphasized that this practice-based approach transcends learning for the test, ups the stakes for students and is useful across the curriculum.

Both Sterett and Eckerd explained that these projects can be challenging to both faculty and students.

“They can be very, very challenging to manage. They require both students and faculty members not think the course is going to go on a predictable plan. Being willing to continue to revisit questions that you thought were settled and being willing or able to use supervisory and problem solving skills that are not usually part of teaching an ordinary course is really important,” Sterett said.

Challenging How Students Tackle Problems

Eckerd emphasized how this kind of course forces students to confront difficult problems that lack clarity–similar to what they would face in the real world.

“They have to makes sense of these problems and think much more in terms of finding a path forward than in finding a correct answer,” he said.

“Students find it scary, but I think, ultimately satisfying,” Sterett said.

Eckerd echoed the sentiment, “Students have always framed that as kind of a good thing—a good nervousness, a good challenge—because they recognize that this is the real world and it’s not just calculating analytical exercises in a textbook.”

Eckerd has used experiential learning projects in numerous policy and management courses where he has offered students the opportunity to work with local nonprofit organizations in Northern Virginia and New River Valley, and the local governments of Fairfax County and Arlington. Students provided original research-driven advice to clients on how to best define organization goals and assess progress on meeting those goals.

The projects have allowed students to make connections with people in the county government and at these nonprofits, as well as the community as a whole, said Eckerd. “It has exposed them to the broader issues facing the commonwealth.”

Sterett has overseen similar student-led projects in her experiential learning course focused on the legal environment for public administration also engaging with the community in Northern Virginia.

Sterett and Eckerd underscored how, despite the challenges, the overwhelming response from students has been positive. They further stated that the ability universities have to offer students these kinds of real world experiences are invaluable.

“Students from all kinds of majors can benefit from a wide variety of projects relevant to public policy and can learn a tremendous amount from them,” Sterett said.

Both Sterett and Eckerd plan to offer similar courses in the future. Eckerd will be offering one this coming spring semester that will have students doing policy evaluation for a yet to be determined client.