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Life Sciences Magazine

Bringing Color to Campus: Experiential Learning

You may have heard of experiential learning, but you probably didn’t know it started from raising sheep and horses. The 4-H program, which partners with over one hundred universities to train children through hands-on learning, was one of the early pioneers of experiential learning. In fact, 4-H’s five steps of learning still remain the basis for experiential learning today: 1) experience, 2) share, 3) process, 4) generalize, and 5) apply. Whether it be research, in-class activities, studies abroad, internships, conference presentations, volunteering, or other work, experiential learning has become a key player in education at Brigham Young University. Here are some of the ways that experiential learning is bringing color to the student experience in the College of Life Sciences.

Biology

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A trip to Samoa likely sounds pleasant to anyone. Dr. Richard Gill, a professor in the Department of Biology, makes this trip every year—but not for a vacation. Dr. Gill takes a group of students to Savai’i, Samoa, to collect data on how climate change affects people on a community scale; once back at BYU, students analyze this data to determine the needs of individuals on Savai’i and to help them receive funding to fulfill those needs. As Dr. Gill reports, students “get an impression of the people, and they also see that the things that they are learning in their undergraduate experience have applications that will help people’s lives.” For example, students are currently working to preserve one of the village’s fresh water springs after the last major cyclone damaged its protective walls. Tava’ilau Segi, a BYU student from Savai’i who researches with Dr. Gill, says, “In time of natural disasters, we always run out of water and people always use those fresh water springs. It is one of our objectives to make that stronger so that people can rely on it.” Tava’ilau continues, “This research really makes a difference. That’s the best thing about applying what we’re learning in class.”

Exercise Sciences

Have you heard of a one-hundred-year-old participating in athletic competitions? Well, this is often the case at the Huntsman World Senior Games. This two-week event in St. George, Utah, features athletes age fifty and older from more than twenty-five countries and all fifty states. BYU students have volunteered at the Huntsman Games for years, and Dr. Ron Hager from the Department of Exercise Sciences currently leads this volunteer process. At the event, students perform health screenings not only for the athletes but also for the general public as part of the Games’ tradition of giving back to the community. Overall, BYU students put in about 3,000 volunteer hours at this event. Dr. Hager says of this experience, “The students get trained to do these screenings and then they go down there and have this amazing opportunity to interact with a healthy and aging population, and it’s an eye-opener for them.” Hager continues, “Most students...have a misperception of what it can mean to get older. There is this idea that as your age goes up, your health goes down, but there are these people age fifty to likely over one hundred and they’re competing and socializing and living life large. Students’ eyes just pop open...It’s turning their education into something truly empowering.”

Microbiology and Molecular Biology

“By 2050 [scientists] are predicting that our bodies’ resistance to antibiotics will be the number one cause of death in the United States, so I think that phages are a really good alternative. I’m not saying don’t take antibiotics at all—because they are very powerful and useful—but we obviously need something else as well,” says Julianne Grose, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology. Dr. Grose researches bacteriophages, and with that research she has a goal for her students: give them the opportunity to do applicable, novel research. “I wanted the students to have a project in class that wasn’t just cookbook—that everyone already knows the answer to. Doing novel research can be challenging because it doesn’t always work, but I think it’s worth it because that is what real science is more like. All my classes are now experiential-based, and the feedback that I get is ‘this class changed my life.’” Dr. Kim O’Neill, another professor in the department, leads a lab of students with the hopes of curing cancer. Not only do his students conduct research, but they also present their research at conferences. “Every year I take them to the American Association for Cancer Research meetings. This is the biggest cancer meeting in the world, and these are undergraduate students presenting—it’s unheard of. Our students go and present and there are 22,000 of the top scientists listening, and our students do really well.”

Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science

While we often think of experiential learning as applied learning outside the classroom, the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science has mastered unique ways to rouse their students within the classroom. For example, if you’ve ever eaten at the Pendulum Court Café in BYU’s Eyring Science Center, you are a beneficiary of experiential learning. You may have thought that the students working there were BYU student employees; however, these workers are students in the Food Production Management Lab. Through this lab, students run a live business while rotating through different management areas like safety, sanitation, and marketing. These skills can then be applied to managing large hospitals or other facilities. Consider Dr. Pauline Williams’ Nutrition Education and Counseling class. In this class, students create nutrition education tools, from bulletin boards and handouts to videos and blogs. Then, in class, the students conduct live demonstrations, counseling “clients”—other students in the class—on nutrition therapy. Dr. Williams records these presentations, so that throughout the course of the class, students can self-critique and learn how to better communicate their messages.Dr. Jeff Tessem, another professor in the department, says of experiential learning: “That hands-on aspect is really, really important. Without that hands-on experience and the actual doing it, it’s hard to answer the question of ‘What are you going to do with your degree?’”

Physiology and Developmental Biology

Dr. David Kooyman has had osteoarthritis for years, so when doctors told him there was no cure and that it was simply a wear-and-tear disease, he decided, “I’m going to make my own cure.” Now, Dr. Kooyman’s Arthritis Wonder is Amazon’s Choice for osteoarthritis cream. How did he get there? Researching with undergraduates. Dr. Kooyman relates, “When Henry B. Eyring was the Commissioner of Education, he came to BYU and talked about using undergraduate students instead of postdocs in research....I took Elder Eyring’s challenge to heart, and tested it. It works!...I give these undergrads projects. They work in teams, and they do things that I don’t know what the outcomes are going to be. They have been intimately involved in every step of the process—proving that osteoarthritis is not a wear-and-tear disease, looking at compounds that might treat the disease, coming up with assays to look at the effectiveness of those compounds, developing the cream. These students really are brilliant, and they are loving it and owning projects. Plus, we have a lot of fun.”Evan Starr and Jacob Smith, members of Dr. Kooyman’s lab team, relay that working in the lab has helped them process what they learn in the classroom. Evan says, “I despised learning some of these topics in my classes and thought I would never use them again in my life. Then in the lab I was excited to find the solution using these things: there was a real reward for this application of knowledge.” Jacob comments, “I learned quickly that there are no perfect answers to questions in research. Better than receiving answers is trying to solve a problem on my own, when taking it to someone that knows more about it."

Plant and Wildlife Sciences

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Another valuable way students practice experiential learning is studying abroad, and, as Dr. Sam St. Clair states, “It’s probably one of the most important things a student can do.” Why? Dr. St. Clair explains that not only do studies abroad allow students to really know their professors—a valuable tool—but they also allow students to actively engage with what they have learned in school, shift their paradigms, and overcome challenges.Just last summer, Dr. St. Clair took a group of students on a study abroad to Peru and Ecuador, where they studied the Incan empire as well as the plants and animals of Peru, the Amazon basin, and the Andes. Dr. St. Clair explains that when he takes students on studies abroad, he “can just see their biases disappear....Not only that, but students are way more curious and engaged. They are more open to learning and taking information in. It’s night and day. It’s such a rich experience.”And what of overcoming challenges? “Study abroad is challenging. It is amazing and inspiring and that is what pushes you to do the hard things and keep at it when you’re sick, covered in bug bites, eating food that is different, or hiking up 15,000 feet of elevation.”

Public Health

Dr. Randy Page is a professor in the Department of Public Health who helps lead the Global Health Internship Program. When this program first came to BYU in 2014, there were two programs—one in India and one in Cambodia—and only fifteen students participated. Now, there are ten programs around the world from Zambia to Botswana to Italy, and in 2018, eighty-three students participated.Dr. Page says, “Global Health Internships offer first-hand experiences alongside local physicians and public health experts and combine instruction, experience, service, and reflection to create a model that supports physicians, clinical sites, and communities abroad. Many students are struck by [the] poverty, resource limitations, and a multitude of challenges [they see] leading to high burdens of illness, death, and reduced quality of life. This gives new, valued perspective as they move forward with schooling and careers....While students may make significant contributions and some impact where they work and serve, we believe the greater impact will be the change that will occur to students themselves.”

Experiential learning brightens the outlook and opportunities of students in the College of Life Sciences. Hannah Clark, a student in Exercise Sciences, relates, “Being able to share my knowledge to help others improve their lives is so meaningful and important to me....Overall, this degree has helped me to become a more well-rounded person....It has started me on a path with the tools I need to maintain personal lifelong health and wellness.” So, whether it’s studies abroad or volunteer work, as Dean James Porter says, “We’re doing this to bless our students and to enrich their lives.”