The Moment of Conversion – Where Experiential Education Begins To Take Off

March 3, 2009 at 11:38 PM

We continue here, and for a while, to post pieces written by one of us and students at Northeastern University. This one deals with the moment when a student working outside the classroom (here in a biology lab) realizes that they are fufilling real responsibilities.  Enjoy and tell us what you think.

– Jim and Shwen.

The Moment of Conversion:
Where Experiential Education Begins To Take Off

By Amy Mehta ’09 and Jim Stellar

I (Amy) was given the opportunity to pursue undergraduate research with a professor at Northeastern University a year ago, and it is compelling to observe the degree of growth and development in the lab I have accrued within that short span of time. I was interested in doing research in a biology lab and was encouraged by my mentor to do a little homework on finding out what professors had labs doing research I was interested in. I approached a professor, whose lab does microbiology research, and stated my desire to work in his lab, and start off volunteering. He suggested that I read some of his papers and describe to me what exactly I was interested in doing and shadow some of the graduate students in his lab.

This is how the relationship began between myself, an undergraduate Biology major, and a graduate school Biology professor with no undergraduates yet working in his lab. On the very first day, week, even month that I started volunteering in his lab I found myself learning everything from scratch. Although, I had previously been on co-op and worked in a lab then, the techniques in the lab were all new to me. I felt sort of like a child learning how to tie her shoes.

Over time however, I was given more responsibility whether it was performing a full day’s experiment on my own or being assigned simple tasks from graduate students to do by myself. The members of the lab became accustomed to my presence and it was very encouraging to be treated like one of the team. Eventually, with my new knowledge at the lab bench and my interest in different projects in the lab I became a full-time paid intern for the summer working on two projects with a graduate student. I really felt a strong commitment and attachment to the projects I was working on and began to get curious about certain aspects.

Feeling more confident in my interests, I approached the professor again, now having a close mentor-mentee relationship with him, and asked him if I could pursue an independent project of my own. He agreed and after long discussions and research of literature we finalized a project and I have spent the last three months initiating it. When I walk into the lab now I no longer feel like a shadow of a graduate student nor do I feel like a lab rat. I now feel like a productive member of the lab who, although is still continuously learning, is also contributing to the lab’s new research. The lab has became so motivated by undergraduate research that by the end of the summer, there was not just one undergraduate student, but 5 undergraduate students working in the lab.

This story illustrates some of the principles that I (Jim) think are at work in making undergraduate research an experiential learning opportunity distinct from classroom learning where a different kind of learning takes place that can be very valuable in making meaning in a student’s life. First, in full disclosure, Amy is a family friend who lives in my town. We connected on campus, actually on her coop in New York City at Johnson and Johnson Company. Because of our familiarity, I decided to help her when we began talking about how she would like to get into research and for a while she even worked in my neuroscience research laboratory, which was crowded with undergraduates, until this better possibility came along. Note that there was no other undergraduate in the microbiology laboratory when Amy joined.

There are a number of points I think this story makes. I will first ask Amy to comment on them and then throw it out for wider discussion.

  1. Notice that Amy was tense when she went in. We think that being out of one’s comfort zone is important to activating the student’s learning. The classroom, while efficient, was a format with which Amy had almost 20 years experience. It was a safe environment for her.
  2. I think it is important that others were around to form a community and to render an implicit judgment of her success (or not). Exams tell students how they are doing in the classroom and a student who did not get the grade they wanted may be disappointed, but Amy could have been embarrassed. Flipping that over, when Amy succeeded she had the powerful social validation of her work and capabilities from her new group of friends.
  3. Amy invented things, figured things out on her own, created knowledge herself. She was supervised but not to the extent that it pushed back these entrepreneurial instincts. Now she acts like a graduate student, not an undergraduate. She has exceeded her job description in the University and everyone is proud of that, including her. To me, she even looks the part. It was very gratifying when I visited her in the lab to see what came out of our friendship.

Amy’s comments:

  1. As a senior, at 21 years – old, I have now spent approximately 16 years of my life in some form of a classroom or another. Over the course of these years I have learned biological concepts, such as glucose metabolism, historical information, how Abraham Lincoln was out 16th president, mathematical information, like the Pythagorean Theorem for a triangle, but most importantly the idea that I have taken away from all my years of schooling is not the knowledge itself, but how to learn, study, and repeat that knowledge in a testing situation. To enter a setting such as a lab or work setting in which learning is taught and absorbed in a different manner is not only new, but intimidating to some respect.I had to step outside my “listening and note-taking” learning skills, into a more interactive learning. I was forced to not just listen and learn from others and their lab skills and protocols, but to ask questions, research on the side, and to practice hands-on techniques myself. Understanding, memorizing, and regurgitating were not the only items that now comprised my list of skills required to succeed in school, rather application, practice, and performance were key. This new situation that I found myself, of course, made me nervous and anxious to be in lab. However, with the encouragement of my lab coworkers, mentors, and myself I was able to step out of that mood as time went on. With every new experiment I performed, with every question I asked, and with every paper I read I felt more confident and sure of the work I was contributing to in the lab. I soon found myself realizing my own independent strengths and individual style of working. This in itself was the key difference I have seen between classroom learning and experiential learning.   

  2. For me, as well as for others out there, internal validation and satisfaction comes from individual success as well as encouragement from those around us: family, friends, peers, and coworkers. It is not that we need this validation from others to know our own success; rather it is rewarding and encouraging knowing that others out there value your success, and this moves you to perform even better as time continues.
    Over the course of my studies as well as working in a lab I have surrounded myself with peers and coworkers. My peers in my classes evaluate me by discussing class-work and material that we are to be tested on, studying together and discussing tests after taking them we are able there is a tacit understanding and observing process as to who actually knows what material and what kind of student each one of us is- whether it is by knowing our respective grades or by quizzing each other on the material in class. With my coworkers this type of evaluation is more active and less tacit. My coworkers will comment on my ability to do certain experiments or perform certain tasks, my supervisor will assign me certain projects to manage and oversee, and when it is completed they will congratulate me or teach me in a direct way the ways in which I can improve.In both scenarios the feedback I received gave me insight into an outside source’s assessment of my strengths and weaknesses. This type of validation is a step towards growth and maturity as it enables me to be responsive and proactive about my actions and performances, for it is no longer just me that I am reporting to, but to my fellow peers and coworkers as well.  


  3. 3. Like Jim mentioned, stepping outside of my comfort zone, used to make me uncomfortable and anxious. Having stepped outside of my comfort zone in leaving my home town for college, again when leaving Boston to work on Co-op at Johnson and Johnson in New Jersey, again when leaving the United States to study abroad in Barcelona, and leaving the class-room setting to pursue undergraduate research all were a very change inflicting experience in my routine classroom-structured life. Having attempted new activities, met new people, and experienced new environments and not only gotten through the experience, but thrived, enjoyed, and succeeded in them have given me the confidence to continue to challenge myself with out of my ordinary activities. Every time I start a something, I stop and question whether it is something I need to do, and then I stop and think to myself about the amazing and life-changing experiences I have had throughout my time at Northeastern inside and especially outside of the classroom and realize that it is most definitely worth the exhilaration, pride, and confidence that accomplishing a challenge and journeying to new places has generously given to me making me the student, scientist, and mature person I am today.

What do you readers think?

Brain Networks: Blog 2: Skill-Learning Networks

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