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Stop Lecturing Me

by Suzanne Bowness

photography by Sofie Kirk

Maheen Sani is a beneficiary of the growing movement toward experiential education at York University. A Lassonde School of Engineering student, she completed three co-ops, working at Metrolinx (the government transportation agency) for 16 months and in the rail and transit sector at Hatch (a global consulting firm) for four months. She credits both co-op experiences with providing her with a pathway into the workforce. Hatch brought her into its co-op program after noticing her at Metrolinx, where the company consults. After her term with Hatch, it extended a full-time job offer.

Experiential learning helps you realize that engineering isn’t like how it is learned during school – it’s so much more fun

“Your degree signifies that you have the theoretical knowledge,” Sani says. “But co-op gives you an insight into what engineering really is and what you’re going to be doing day to day. Experiential learning helps you realize that engineering isn’t like how it is learned during school – it’s so much more fun.”

Opportunities for learning outside the classroom are on the rise at York, and cover everything from visiting guest speakers to more formalized work placements that lead to professional development and sometimes even jobs. All experiential education (EE) at York is required to connect with program learning outcomes and to include academic assessment. “Our goal,” says Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt, interim associate vice-president of Teaching and Learning at York, “is that every student at York University will have access to an EE opportunity during the course of their undergraduate degree.”

Helping to make that happen is YU Experience Hub, created in 2016 to consolidate and raise the profile of EE across the University. Led by director Kathleen Winningham, the Hub creates networking events to attract potential community partners and employers while supporting a network of full-time EE co-ordinators now established in each faculty.

“I think it’s really brought together a sense of community with respect to experiential education, and how we can support one another and make sure that our community partners and employers are serviced in the best possible way,” Winningham says.

One of the Hub’s newest initiatives is the Cross-Campus Capstone Classroom, or “C4” – a new full-year capstone course launched earlier this year at York University. The pilot project brings together third- and fourth-year students from different faculties into multidisciplinary teams focused on solving real-world challenges posed by organizations operating in both the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds. Current projects include initiatives like helping a cannabis business scale its waste-water recycling technology for wider urban food growing, and working with the Yonge Street Mission to develop a set of guidebooks on experiential trauma.

Our goal is that every student at York University will have access to an EE opportunity during the course of their undergraduate degree

Originally designed to accommodate 20 students, the program is already oversubscribed, with 77 currently enrolled. Danielle Robinson, director of the York Capstone Network (YCN) and an associate professor in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design, is co-facilitator of C4, and says that capstones are motivational. “I see students light up in a way that I don’t see in any of my other classes. And I think it’s because they’re being challenged, asked to dream big, to think about the world and what they have to offer.”

Earlier this year, Robinson teamed up with Franz Newland, an assistant professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering, to co-facilitate C4 as an extension of the York Capstone Network they founded last year with integral support from the Teaching Commons and the Career Centre. The YCN, which is now bolstered by a two-year AIF grant, brings together dozens of faculty who have been, are or want to be teaching capstone courses. Network members gather for monthly cafés where capstone students, pedagogy experts and York staff allies explore the immense rewards and challenges of capstones.

“The advantage of this approach to capstone teaching is that students get a taste of the ‘real world’ before leaving York,” says Carolyn Steele, a career development co-ordinator in the Career Centre and an adjunct professor in humanities. “The world and its challenges and opportunities are intrinsically multidisciplinary, but many degrees are not – they are typically disciplinary in focus. C4 gives participants the opportunity to collaborate with students from other majors, as well as with professors and professionals outside their departments. In this way, they come to know what they have to offer the world, as well as the value of their discipline and their York degree.”

Experiential education initiatives thrive at Glendon in a variety of courses that offer students the opportunity to enrich their academic experiences through placements in organizations whose work dovetails with course content. The YU ROC! (York University Research on Campus) program, for example, gives students hands-on environmental experience in association with two large international wildlife monitoring networks. Led by Laura McKinnon, assistant professor of biology at York, the program takes students out of the classroom and into the natural environment of Glendon’s 34.3 hectares of ravines, parklands and gardens as part of a pilot project to document biodiversity in the area.

At the Keele Campus, Melanie Belore, associate director of experiential education in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LAPS), co-ordinates an equal range of EE opportunities in her faculty, from Health & Society students completing work placements in public policy to Disaster & Emergency Management students engaged in disaster response simulations. In LAPS, more formal internships are offered through 10 professional programs, including accounting, economics and communications, while other programs invite community members into the classroom – for instance, at the School of Social Work, where experts help to practise difficult conversations.

Future goals include growing the EE offerings in disciplines that don’t traditionally include as many experiences, such as humanities and social sciences, since the opportunity for outside connection is valuable for everyone.

“What we’ve heard from our students is that these experiences help reaffirm program choice or course selection,” Belore says. “They push them out of their comfort zone and build confidence.”    

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