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‘Off the Script’ featuring University President Donald J. Farish

Arnold Robinson, director of the University’s Community Partnerships Center, trades ideas with Don Farish on project-based learning and its potential to expand the impact of an RWU education on both students and partners beyond campus.
Photo by: Julie Brigidi, OGGI Photo

Arnold Robinson:

Let’s start with a big, framing question: Why is experiential learning so integral in a Roger Williams University education?

Donald Farish:

Two reasons: First, some students simply learn better in experiential learning mode. The old model was: “You sit there and listen while I talk. You either learn or you don’t.” That works well for 80 percent of learners, but not the other 20 percent. There are preferred ways of learning and in essence, we have said that we’re only going to use the dominant way – the lecture modality. The reality is that in the working world, that isn’t how people interact. So we need to exercise different modalities of learning, whether that means hands-on learning, experiential learning or using different senses (visual vs. auditory learning). That’s the philosophical reason.

The practical reason is that we have a tremendous diversity of programs on campus, and we can allow students to match things they truly love with areas they see as being of practical value to them. Project-based learning emphasizing a skill that is particularly valued by employers today – working collaboratively. In the old days, we called that cheating! Now, we see the error of our way and we recognize that collaborative learning is a good thing.

Collaboration accurately represents what goes on in the outside world. For us to model some of that while students are undergraduates and to emphasize the idea that it isn’t an either/or proposition – that you can marry the thing you love with things that are of immediate practical application to you – is the beauty of what RWU can offer. At many colleges, you get a liberal art backed up by another liberal art. We take advantage of our academic diversity when we encourage people to work across lines, and project-based learning is the best way to do that.

Robinson:

Many schools point to internships as their “we get you out there in the world” approach. How does project-based learning differ?

Farish:

It’s not that there’s a good way and a bad way to prepare students. Many internships are meaningful experiences, but the student is taken out of his or her normal learning context and placed into the middle of an enterprise where we aren’t necessarily sure what the learning is. The newest kid on the block may be getting coffee – or the experience could be very meaningful. Internships are certainly of value, but because we rely on the entity with whom we place the student, we can’t control them. Project-based learning offers a far more controlled environment, and not a solitary environment. Students work with their peers and with faculty from different disciplines. It’s a far stronger, more robust learning experience.

Robinson:

And, as you say, far more analogous to what’s happening in the real world where students will be in the room with those different disciplines. The concept of not only experiential learning, but serving the community, is not something that’s being created from whole cloth at Roger Williams – what areas of strength do we have that give us a sense that this is a good direction?

Farish:

Though perhaps not labeled this way or done with a clear breadth of focus, the entire history of Roger Williams University has involved these kinds of activities. Sometimes it’s inherent in the disciplines – how can you do historic preservation without working on a project? It doesn’t seem to have value to just keep saying, “Here’s another picture of an old building!”

Robinson:

Some lectures can be like that!

Farish:

There are some things it’s better that I don’t know!

But if there are things that we are already doing, that makes it far easier for me to say, why don’t we adopt this as a value for the institution? Let’s make it ubiquitous. Let’s make it universal. Perhaps make it mandatory that every student has one of these experiences.

Right now we are collecting information from around campus to find out just how much of this is actually going on, and it is even more than we thought. At some point, we need to understand the practical considerations. How many new courses would we need to create? Do we have to take apart the fabric of the institution and stitch it together in a very different way to achieve this objective? Or is it a matter of scaling up? I think we will find that it’s simply a matter of scaling up, probably not as much as we think.

Robinson:

To expand the volume of projects that will impact both the student and the community, there’s a level of commitment required on our part. What will it take from a resource standpoint?

Farish:

First, we need to decide as a campus that this is something we want to do institution-wide. But I don’t think that this would turn out to be a hugely expensive thing. This morning, I had a conversation with representatives from the EPA who want to start a major collaborative project – private industry, educational institutions, state and local governments – involving water quality and nutrient runoff in Southern New England. I described what we are doing at Roger Williams, and they absolutely fell off their chairs. Getting students involved? Why didn’t we think of that! My point is that when we articulate our value system, we will find opportunities coming to us. Sure, it requires resources, but I believe this will be an easier lift than we imagine.

Robinson:

We’ve had these wonderful programs that have been operating within their disciplines and reaching out to the community. Why now, at this point in time, should we be thinking about expanding project-based learning across the University?

Farish:

Again, two reasons, one of them highly pragmatic. Right now, the U.S. is facing a situation where significant numbers of students are graduating and not getting jobs. It is no longer sufficient to have a college degree and then simply choose which job you want to accept. Parents are concerned that after spending a lot of money, they might end up with their child not able to get a job or cover loans – even coming back to live with them again!

So at Roger Williams, how do we give our graduates an edge? What is it that we offer that will allow them to be more competitive for those scarce jobs? Project-based learning will stand out on a resume because students can point to major collaborative projects and describe their importance to broader society. I think that will resonate with people who aren’t really expecting a newly minted graduate to really have a big dossier.

The second reason: One of the questions that this campus has been asking itself and that others have been asking of it, is what is the Roger Williams brand? How do you differ from the school down the street? Parents ask this question. “This is the sixth of 12 colleges I’m looking at and beyond the physical appearance, what stands out that warrants more than a quick look?”

We have the potential to say to them: “We are committed to giving your child a range of educational experiences that is inclusive of the capabilities and competencies that emanate from the liberal arts (sophisticated thinking skills, ability to synthesize information from diverse sources and to communicate that – the so-called soft skills) with the practical hard skills that are the door-openers in the employment office.”

Many of our academic programs have wonderful reputations, but in what way does Roger Williams the institution benefit from that? How does the Department of English benefit from the reputation that the School of Architecture has? We should be looking for ways to tie programs together and open doorways so that students are encouraged to cross discipline lines and take full advantage of the breadth of the curriculum that we have here.

We really are missing the point if all we can say is that we have more silos than the next school. Project-based learning crosses disciplines. I think that benefits the students, it benefits the faculty dialogue and ultimately, it benefits society.

Robinson:

As we expand on experiential learning as part of the student experience, you’re in a position to look at other colleges and universities. How unique is this approach?

Farish:

Very, very, very uncommon. I was at a conference recently, and I was able to identify three other schools that had something like this as part of their fabric of the institution. Other colleges are doing bits and pieces of this for the same reasons that we have – it evolved spontaneously, but it isn’t something that people have embraced universally. If there are 4,500 institutions in the country and only a handful are doing this, we would be pretty close to unique.

Robinson:

As an ambassador for the University, you are out talking with potential partners whether you’re in Bristol, Providence or elsewhere in the region. What’s the appetite from the community? Yes, Roger Williams, we’d love to have you here? Or you’re an academic institution and we can solve our own community problems?

Farish:

The first reaction is: “We might expect that kind of focus on the community from a public institution, but you’re a private school!” The shock value alone is worth it. People are astonished we’re talking this way. But they get over that fairly quickly and then they absolutely love this idea. The concept is easy for people to understand and it’s not a hard sell. We are going to bring student and faculty talent across a broad range of expertise, and we’re going to tackle this problem and if not solve it for you, at least offer you the beginnings of a solution.

A lot of towns in New England are small and they do not have a deep base of expertise in city government. It’s mostly a volunteer activity and they don’t tend to have large planning departments or a whole lot of people with broad expertise. So how do they solve these problems? We come along and offer the resources of a rather substantial institution. And there’s very little downside to them – if they don’t like the product, they don’t have to use it.

They also like the idea that this is good experience for the students, and it further connects the campus with the community. A lot of people feel that universities are isolated institutions with virtual, if not literal, walls around them. We’re breaking down the idea that we are a separate society. I think we should be in the community on a permanent basis – we will better prepare our students for the world into which they will soon emerge.

Robinson:

I find that there’s an almost a physics-like reaction when folks get in a room with students. A certain amount of cynicism just drops off. Working side by side with students, people tend to sort of dream a little more as they look to find solutions for their community. I find that interesting.

Farish:

And you’ve had that as a firsthand experience lately through the Community Partnerships Center. I have not. I’m living vicariously through your experiences.

This conversation served as the basis for “Off the Script” on Page 3 of the Spring 2012 issue of RWU Magazine.

Click here for more on the Community Partnerships Center at Roger Williams University.