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Teaching Toolbox

The World is a Classroom

By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

Students learn a lot once they step outside the four walls of their academic institutions.

Although many engineering professors believe that all real learning takes place in the classroom, students and educational researchers know that a lot of it takes place outside of class. Student organizations, such as clubs, student chapters of professional societies, fraternities, sororities, intramural sports—plus work opportunities such as co-operative education and internships that are integrated into the curriculum—are all great venues for learning time management, interpersonal, and leadership skills.

But the challenge for educators is not just to get students to participate in outside activities. For real learning to take place, students have to do more than just attend meetings or compete on teams. These activities only have an effect if students are involved. (Of course, involvement is necessary for class activities also.) You might encourage students to join and become involved in at least one extracurricular activity, especially as a committee chair or officer of the organization.

Students learn skills from what they do. To learn to be a team player, for example, one needs to participate on teams. To become a leader, one needs opportunities to be a leader. Intramural sports and student organizations provide these opportunities. Projects such as visiting nursing homes, teaching swimming to the disabled, or cleaning up a park as an organization-sponsored activity are excellent leadership training since students have to plan and implement the activity. Service organizations are especially effective since they usually have a number of projects that require someone to take charge. Members of fraternities and sororities who become officers in their organization are getting a crash course in leadership.

In fact, taking a leadership role in a student organization may well be the deciding factor in landing a good job. Companies look for these activities on résumés, and it gives them another reason to hire the individual. If it's necessary for students to work to pay for their education, encourage them to make the extra effort to be promoted to a supervisory position. Being a crew chief at a fast-food restaurant will have much more impact on a résumé than flipping hamburgers.

Another benefit of outside activities is that they help keep engineering students in the program. Students who connect with other students and the university are less likely to drop out. Obviously, joining student organizations and living in a residence hall are excellent ways to increase social interactions—particularly critical for first-year students since they are most at risk.

Increased interaction with faculty is another way to improve student retention. Informal contacts with professors outside of class have the most impact. Students can develop both professionally and personally by knowing a few professors well. It is particularly important later on when students need letters of recommendation for graduate school or a job.

You can provide that connection by serving as a faculty sponsor or adviser of a student organization, residence hall, fraternity, or sorority. Although somewhat time-consuming, it can be very rewarding. Faculty advisers can greatly increase the learning that occurs in student organizations. For example, informally debriefing committee chairs over a cup of coffee encourages them to reflect on what worked, what didn't work, and why. This kind of insight can transform a student activity into a learning experience in practical aspects of leadership and project management.

Another way to involve students are group projects with rotating leadership. The projects should entail a team effort and require the leader to plan, delegate, motivate, and integrate. Be sure to incorporate reflection so that students can learn about leadership skills in addition to technical content.

Because opportunities for students to practice interpersonal skills, leadership, and teamwork in class are necessarily limited, involvement in student organizations can provide the needed practice. Playing on the soccer team or planning a frat party may seem like fun and games, but it can be much more.

Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University.
Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school.
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