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Inspired Experiential Learning at BYU

Dr. Jennifer Neilson's remarks at the 2019 Experiential Learning Summit.

Dr. Jennifer Nielson


Ira Remsen was an undergraduate in New York and he was reading his chemistry textbook, and he came across the statement: “Nitric acid acts upon copper.” And he had a few copper pennies and decided, as a poor undergrad, he was willing to sacrifice a few to find out what does it mean to “act upon.” So he poured some nitric acid on one of the pennies on his table in his room and, in his own words, this is what he described what happened next:

“What was this wonderful thing that I beheld? The penny was already changed, it was no small change either! A greenish-blue liquid foamed and fumed over the penny and over the table. The air in the neighborhood of the performance became dark red. A great colored cloud arose. This was disagreeable and suffocating. How should I stop this? I tried to get rid of the objectionable mess by picking it up and throwing it out the window, which I had mean-whiled opened, and I learned another fact: Nitric acid acts upon fingers.
The pain led to another unpremeditated experiment. I drew my fingers across my trousers and discovered the fact: Nitric acid acts upon trousers.
Taking everything into consideration that was the most impressive experiment and, relatively probably, the most costly experiment I ever performed. I tell it even now with interest. It was a revelation to me! It resulted in a desire, on my part, to learn more about that remarkable kind of action”.

So, Dr. Remsen was motivated to learn more, and he actually went on to discover saffron, and started the chemistry department at Johns Hopkins university, and was later he was the president of the university. He was also the president of the American Chemical Society and was awarded the highest metal they give, he was the first recipient of the Priestly Medal. It started, in his case, literally, with hands on learning.

And so what is it, when I think about, what is it about “hands on” that enhances learning. I’ve spent, as Dave mentioned, the last seven summers now, in Uganda, Africa. I created and facilitated some professional development workshops for secondary school chemistry teachers, and they’re called “Learning Chemistry Through Experimentation.” So what happens in Uganda, as in many African countries, is the students take 4 to 6 years of chemistry before they graduate from high school. Which sounds awesome, right? This is amazing! Why couldn’t do this in the US? Until you find out that the students actually hate it, and nobody goes on to the university to study chemistry. Now I think what you’re actually thinking right now is: “well, that’s because it's chemistry”, but there's a lot of evidence that it might be because everything they learn is very theoretical.

They memorize the periodic table, but they can't do anything with it because it has no meaning. So the value, or one of the values at least, of experiential learning is that it takes something abstract and it makes it concrete. Experiential learning helps us and our students connect the meaning of what we are learning theoretically to the actual world. A study by professor Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago in 2015 found an interesting correlation between “hands on” and learning. She took students and divided them into two groups. One of the groups, the first group, performed a hands-on experiment. It was a physics experiment about momentum and twerk, angle momentum. And then the second student from the second group just observed the experiment as the first student was doing it. And then they put them both into do brain scans.

What was interesting was the group who’d performed the experiment, in the brain scans, even thinking about it, show that they activated the sensory and motor related parts of the brain. Just thinking about the physics concept that they had just done. And they did not see that happening in the brain scans of the students who had not actually performed the experiment. And then the student’s all took a quiz on these physics principles, and the students who had the hands-on practice outperformed the students who had not. So there’ other research like this that seems to support there’s actually a neural track that is being laid down differently, if you have this, more of a experiential learning type “activity”.

So I know there’s many ways that experiential learning happens, this is the one I think about often, because I'm in chemistry, this more “hands-on” [activity]. And for me, I actually think sometimes experiential learning goes deeper than just my brain. I feel like it gets into my soul. It’s like I have this experience and no one can take it away for me because I lived it, and that's a useful place to be especially when you're starting to doubt, right? When you look at a problem and you’re not sure how to solve it. And I'll just add in there the other huge plus for experiential learning, in my mind, is it’s just it's just way more fun to do it than watch.

In one of the experiments or workshops I was doing in Uganda, one of the high school teachers was having a great time and said “this is the most fun I've ever had”, which of course just meant that I was really worried about what his life is like. Must not be having too much fun! So while I'm speaking about my own scientific field I really feel like it's experiential learning that probably happened to many of us, in our roles here as faculty, and also other ways in which those of you who are here supporting, right, research, supporting the students in this. We probably had an experiential learning type opportunity, and that’s what got us excited about our field, and why we ended up staying there. That’s the kind of thing we want for students.

So, there’s many answers to why we value especially learning. Let me give you cone more. Every discipline has interesting questions that we do not know the answers, and the value to experiential learning is that the students experience in the creation of new knowledge. This is one of the most important responsibilities we have a university: “to create new knowledge”. In my class, my students have to practice problem solving, but the answer to the problem is in the back of the book, right. So this is supposedly our way that we're giving them the skills so that they can try something that we don't know the answer to. That experiential learning has to happen at some point, or that learning, solving a problem that’s already known goes away. So it's the students extending what they learn in the classroom to expand and explore a new problem that has no known solution.

And undergraduates often have great research ideas, now if you’re in chemistry you always have to vet them very well. But my husbands a professor as well, some of you may know he is in the political science department, Dan Nielson, Dan does a lot of work in Africa as well, and he runs a class in the winter semester and then takes his students on what is called “Mentored Research Abroad”, similar to a “Study Abroad”, but they designed an experiment in the winter semester and then in the summer they go to the country to put it into the field. And three of his students, a few years ago, (Students Names), came up with a pro social experiment they wanted to try. They wanted to know if people “helped” differently, depending on the race, status, and gender of the recipient of their help. They get asked, “who’s asking them to help?”

This was not Dan’s idea, it was an incredibly well design experiments, the students got together African-American the numerators and they dressed up in different clothing to match status and then they had a course of male and female in numerators asking. They stopped at 1200 people on the streets of Compala, and in addition to what they learned (and if you want to know, I’m going leave you hanging, you can come ask me afterwards) in addition to what they had asked, and what they wanted to know, what they also learned is it only 14 people in the 1200 left with the money, because they would approach someone hand the money and say “can you help me buy some minutes for my phone”, which is how people typically use their cell phones in Africa.

Right, only 14 people walked away, so when you discover an answer you didn’t specifically design, or it's unexpected like for Ira Remsen, somehow that actually set the stage so that you're even more curious than you were before. It’s like we want to know what else we don't understand, often times until we see a result, we don't even know we don't understand something, and that's a key lesson that our students can learn, because often times they think they know everything and it takes that exam to have a pull out of them before they realize they’re not quite ready.

Now, what do you do when the energy you put into a project, with undergraduates especially, doesn’t match the new knowledge out. And I think the answer, many of us would agree, is that you remember that the student is the result. It’s a new student that's being created as they journey in this experiential learning landscape.

So experiential learning for our students here at BYU gives them the opportunity to practice really for life, which has no solution manuals. You know, if you think about it, what our students are going to do when they graduate is the kind of things they’re practicing in experiential learning. You know, running a business plan to start your own company, or a class plan to teach school, that’s really just a research design. Making a diagnosis of a patient, a lot of my students go on to medical school, that hypothesis of what might be wrong with the patient, and the tests you’re going to order in order to find out if you're right, that’s just an experiment, and you know practicing law or something else where you create new knowledge is just adding to the field. Those are the kinds of things our students are going to have to do.

I’ve actually heard President Worthen use data before from a Gallop poll that was taken in 2014, some of you may remember this, and what they were trying to learn was if there was a correlation between where are you went to college and if you were happy in your profession, and just general well-being and happiness in your life. And then they pull 30,000 college grads what they learned is doesn't appear to be very much correlation at all, if you're looking outside of the university public versus private courier research institution versus a liberal arts, but there were two factors that were correlated, the first one was: was there a faculty member or someone who, outside the classroom, knew you , you felt like they cared for you, or they were instrumental in somehow and things that you were learning, and the second one was that if you had an experience of actually experiential learning outside of the classroom. Those are the two things that correlated, it didn't matter where you went in matter what you did while you were there.

I'm hoping that if we design our experiential learning opportunities right, that we’ll be able to get both those factors in there, right, this mentoring that happens with faculty and graduate students for undergrads, and then this learning that happens with no known solutions outside of the classroom.