It’s All About the Experience

Photo of LeeRay CostaThis semester I’m teaching one of my favorite courses: Food, Culture, and Social Justice. In this interdisciplinary course, we will:

  • explore the relationship between food, culture, and meaning;
  • critically examine the global agri-food system and its effects on people and the environment; and
  • learn about the many ways local communities and organizations are crafting a more just food system.

And yes, we also eat!

Central to the course is a community partnership project that engages students in experiential learning in the surrounding Roanoke community. In addition to going on class field trips to a community garden, urban farm, and locally sourced restaurant (complete with tasting), each student volunteers 12 hours at a local food nonprofit. By the end of the semester, our class will have contributed nearly 300 hours of labor to local food justice efforts while applying course concepts and theories to real world situations. This is just one example of what teaching and learning looks like at Hollins University today.

Current research in higher education tells us that today’s students—labeled Gen Z or iGen—yearn for opportunities to connect what they are learning to contemporary social, political, economic, and environmental issues. They are especially interested in using new technologies, collaborating with others, and innovating to solve problems, and in the process, gaining essential professional and life skills. For the 21st century learner, transcending boundaries—disciplinary, physical, and social—is a vital way of knowing and being in the world.

At Hollins our faculty members have long understood the power of experiential learning and the relationship between curricular and cocurricular programs in a student’s educational journey. Thus, we have a solid foundation on which to build even more creative and engaging learning opportunities for current and future students. Some recent courses taught by my colleagues have included the following experience-based projects:

  • conducting underwater research in St. John (U.S. Virgin Islands) on marine systems and reef biodiversity;
  • creating works of art using Renaissance painting techniques that are centuries old;
  • crafting and presenting marketing plans for local start-ups;
  • working with local nonprofits to register voters, organize poll transportation, and communicate election information; and
  • mentoring area youth through creative writing.

Teaching through experience, especially when coupled with deep reflection, is transformative for both professors and students alike. Learning in this way is embodied and requires our whole selves to be present and engaged. In addition to providing new knowledge, an experiential approach helps students learn critical lessons about themselves, their interests, and their capacities. For today’s students, who value living a life of meaning and for whom personal fulfillment is imperative, it really is all about the experience.

LeeRay Costa, Ph.D., professor of gender and women’s studies, and the new director of faculty development