Hands on projects can create valuable learning opportunities

by Catherine Van Weele, Opinion Editor

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For me, school is about showing up to class and getting all my assignments done. It is not something that is learning- focused.

I attend all my classes on time, but even though I am physically sitting at my desk, I certainly don’t feel present. Rather, I feel quite disengaged from the curriculum, even in the classes for my major. 

This is largely due to lecture-based teaching styles, busy work, long essays on boring prompts and multiple-choice examinations. This classroom structure creates daily monotony.

School becomes about getting through the day, and nothing much more than that. I’m sure many of my fellow classmates would agree.

There is frustration over the education system’s failings to curate engaging academic environments, and it has been like this for quite some time.

Project-based learning where the student is afforded autonomy over their education is an optimistic way forward.

My high school senior project was perhaps the one thing that made me feel like I was genuinely learning important things. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact that the project required me to engage with the outside world, looking away from teachers and instead towards my peers and people in my community.

We were able to choose what our senior projects would be, with just a few measurable criteria to meet.

Having been enrolled in journalism and photography classes throughout my high school years, I decided to utilize the skills I had acquired by creating a magazine. I chose to center the magazine on female empowerment as the #MeToo movement had begun gaining momentum a few weeks prior to the start of my project.

I wrote seven articles on various feminist subjects from egalitarian partner relationships, to normalizing menstruation to representation in the media. Having to heavily research feminist thought enabled me to understand feminism in context to our larger society. And, I was able to formulate my own opinions and establish a personal meaning for feminism.

I noticed that writing so many articles in a short period of time greatly improved my writing. I saw the emergence of my own writing style which helped give me more confidence in my work.

Two of the illustrations in the magazine were drawn by my fellow art students who had agreed to help me out. For this I had to effectively communicate the direction I wanted for the art piece.

Most of the stories were accompanied by my own photographs. I had to come up with original ideas for the content that would exemplify the points I was making in my writing. Then I had to find people willing to model for me and schedule times for photo shoots.

For one series of photographs, I wanted to take portraits of female business owners in my community. To find people willing to participate, I put out an advertisement on a popular community Facebook page. This process showed me how to network with others and present myself professionally.

The collaboration it took to produce these art pieces helped me learn to navigate planning around multiple people’s busy schedules, working with others’ creative processes and how the process of producing art in the real world plays out.

To create the magazine, I used Adobe InDesign which is a program I had not used prior to the project. I had to teach myself how to use many of its functions through online articles and videos. I practiced self-sufficiency while gaining a new skill.

By the end of it all, I curated and then articulated my own ideology on an important social issue. I exercised my creativity and improved my writing. I was able to meet and connect with new people I otherwise would not have. And, I further developed marketable hard skills.

This one project was far more valuable than any lecture or reading could ever be. Many of my high school classmates felt the same about their projects whether it was learning how to cook or making their own music album. It renewed a fading interest in school and education.

Most importantly, our senior projects felt rewarding. I was proud of the end results because it was more than just a grade — it is something gratifyingly tangible.

This is how students should be learning.

There should be a focus on getting students involved in the real world. Schools should connect students with local businesses through internships and mentorships. These relationships can help foster a stronger sense of community.

This is not to say that traditional education methods through lectures delivered by accomplished professors don’t provide helpful insights, but rather they should be used as supplementary educational techniques.

The best form of learning is hands-on experience.

Students are often underestimated, but the truth is we are tenacious beings with a drive for innovation and creation. We should be encouraging students to pursue their own interests because it can lead to something truly empowering.

Catherine Van Weele is a sophomore studying political science. Follow her on Twitter @catievanweele.

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