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Experiential learning is at the forefront of what constitutes a good education. York University is one of its leaders.

Long gone are the days when a professor spoke at the front of a classroom of students, with heads down, madly scribbling pages and pages of notes. Today, students might just find themselves in the field analyzing phosphorus in different sections of soil or examining a city planning proposal with a diverse team offering input.

Experiential learning is now at the forefront of what constitutes a good education, one that prepares students to be career-ready. According to a 2016 report by the Government of Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, “There is growing recognition of the significant role of experiential learning in contributing to a learner’s acquisition of the competencies necessary for 21st-century life.” 

Learn by doing through experiential education

York University’s new Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC) is one of the leaders of experiential learning. Students taking part in any of EUC’s six undergraduate programs will find themselves receiving both critical theory and hands-on experience.

Gavin Lin is in his final year at EUC in the Cities, Regions, Planning BES program. He is also taking part in York University’s Cross-Campus Capstone Classroom (C4), an interdisciplinary offering that brings together students from various programs and faculties to solve issues that have a social impact.  “C4 opens up a lot of different opportunities for students to be able to apply their knowledge to real-world problems,” said Lin. “You have the freedom to choose how to navigate through the project with your team and where to take it.”

Lin is working with the City of Markham’s Environmental Advisory Committee on an initiative called, “Get Your Lawns Off Gas.” Lin explained, “The City wants to encourage Markham residents to transition over to non-gas-powered lawn maintenance equipment to reduce carbon emissions.”

It is through this type of active community engagement that students get a sense of how they are making an impact.

Experiential training at EUC takes students into the field

EUC gives students other opportunities to apply their skills outside of the classroom. For instance, students like Lin also collect real data in the outdoor environment around campus and then conduct experiments inside the lab.

Others, such as Summer Solmes, has an internship within the Faculty through the Dean’s Changemaker Placement Program, giving her the opportunity to work in an administrative role within a large research project. Solmes is a BES student in Sustainable Environmental Management and is part of the Ecological Footprint Initiative. “The program looks at how humans are changing the nature of the landscape and what that looks like in numbers,” said Solmes. “This data needs to be interpreted for those who don’t have a background in the field so that policymakers and decision-makers are equipped to implement change.”

The EUC Faculty also includes field trips, international exchanges, work placements and—a highlight for many students—time abroad at the University’s eco-campus in Costa Rica. EUC York is the only Canadian university to have an international eco-campus where students train directly in the field, studying everything from the politics surrounding water to human migration patterns to biodiversity monitoring.

Seeing education in a different way

While the many benefits of experiential learning are still being discovered and discussed, it is unequivocally of value to the students who take part in it.

Solmes spoke about her time at York University’s EUC Faculty. “Experiential education is like switching out the old lenses for new ones, to see the world in a different way. It is an opportunity for you to express yourself and be creative, to learn in a more meaningful way. It’s about finding your passion and pursuing it—something that only reading books cannot help you to do.”

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