Nationwide there is a discussion surrounding a perceived decline in our society’s civic participation and, as a result, many higher education institutions recognize that we need to renew our mission of preparing students to be engaged citizens. In returning to its foundational purpose, a university education serves a greater purpose than preparing students for a profession—it’s also about instilling a desire to use one’s knowledge to better the world. In my view, the best way to accomplish this is through “engaged learning.”
To understand the importance of engaged learning, we must first understand why an active and experiential style of learning plays a crucial role in a student’s overall collegiate experience. When faculty help to engage students directly with real-world issues and challenges, it heightens their attention and focus, motivates them to practice judgement and critical thinking skills, and promotes a sense of purpose in their learning. Active learning allows students the opportunity to adapt their prior knowledge with new situations, thereby establishing meaning and insight for themselves. Engaged students are also more likely to leave school with the understanding that they can use the knowledge and skills obtained from their degree for a career and for the greater good.
Universities play a pivotal role in helping students connect their studies to the world. Cultivating an ethos for engaged learning requires faculty and advisors to help envision a complimentary and intentional integration across different forms of learning, to improve campus support structures, and to clearly identify desired outcomes. It is therefore imperative for universities to invest time and energy in creating environments that are conducive to engaged learning. Over the years, Mason faculty have introduced numerous creative learning opportunities for our students, and we have formalized some these efforts on our campus under the auspices of Mason Impact. This initiative aims to transform the way students approach their studies by identifying a passion and preparing them to tackle significant challenges in the context of research and creative activities, community engagement and civil learning, entrepreneurship, and global activities. Students who participate in Mason Impact experiences learn beyond the classroom—they create or join a project which requires them to examine an issue, consult with colleagues or specialists in the field, devise a plan to address the topic at hand, and move forward with the tools they have been empowered with to implement the plan. As a facet of redesigning Mason student experiences, our ultimate goal is to ensure that all undergraduate students are able to incorporate at least one Mason Impact experience before graduation.
Mason is not the first university to tackle the idea of actively engaging students outside of lecture halls. In fact, schools such as Tulane, Duke, Cornell, and Brown are known for their engaged learning platforms which encourage students to use what they’ve learned in classes to create solutions to real-world issues. Some accomplish this by leveraging relationships with professionals and outside organizations, while others design and carry out projects by deploying students around the world. Whether it’s transforming a flooded golf course into an organic farm that feeds the surrounding community, studying the reasons behind low birth weights and rapid weight gains in infants for certain ethnicities and establishing proper pre-natal care for mothers, or analyzing the impact solitary confinement has on both prisoners and guards, students are impacting not only their immediate community, but changing the world.
Mason Impact is for every student as it can be the spark that ignites the passion that inspires one’s career. This style of learning allows students to take ownership of their ideas and subsequent work and teaches skills that will be relevant throughout life such as teamwork, communications, and an appreciation for the complex and contexture nature of all real-world issues. Most importantly, students who participate in engaged learning projects quickly learn that it’s not about the hours worked but rather the joy in the engagement itself. In the end, knowing their contributions are vital in making a difference to the world make them the engaged citizens we aim to prepare.
I have often said students are our society’s most important asset as it is through them that the world is changed. It is our responsibility as faculty to ensure students are connected to their passion and have the keys they need to immerse themselves with the world. I hope you join me in growing Mason Impact and other forms of engaged learning, and encouraging our students to look around and see how they can make a difference. Should you have any ideas on how we can accomplish this together, I welcome your suggestions.