One Improvement Colleges Need That Adds Immediate Value To Education

Higher Education That Works
Why do we restructure learning when we know simple, proven methods return value to students?

Last Friday, I attended a Senior Project Expo for my son who will graduate in mid-June as a Mechanical Engineer from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA. My son has worked on a designing and building a carbon fiber project all year-long. I wasn’t initially a super big fan of senior projects. Mainly because it prevented my son from graduating early. Nevertheless, as the day approached, I was very excited to experience the entire process firsthand. From CAD to building molds and prototypes to 3D printing to drop-load testing, I wanted to see the trials, tribulations and triumphs of all his hard work.

Having went through the Senior Project Expo, I hold a much different opinion now. And, aside from representing more work, I have no idea why more colleges, universities and degree programs do not conduct senior projects of their own. In my mind, they are a necessary and natural part of anyone’s education. They become opportunities to apply education through highly relevant and instructional work assignments that not only demonstrate, but cement, what students have learned. When paired with public expos to showcase and discuss work performed to the outside world, senior projects turn into events that offer even greater value.

My Experience
As a recruiter of graduate students for 55 MBA schools, I have to admit I am not a casual observer. Although I have been to several dozen college campuses throughout the world, I have never experienced a Senior Project Expo taken to this level. Soon after entering the event as an excited parent, I quickly put on my work hat and started to see untapped potential all around me. Two of my recurring thoughts were, “Why don’t more schools do this?”; which was closely followed by, “Why aren’t more stakeholders involved and people attending this event?”

Why Senior Projects Matter
Capstone projects effectively move Higher Education into more of an outcomes-based (a.k.a., ROI-based) experience. As such, senior projects provide real benefits to schools (i.e., administrations, faculty and support staffs) who can effectively teach how to learn through doing and advance beyond simple projects and written tests. They also deliver higher value to students who upon successful completion are able to demonstrate their knowledge and exercise mastery of subjects while gaining confidence throughout the process.

It is widely accepted that the more immersive an education is the more learning is retained and recalled for later use. According to NY Times best-selling author of Smarter Faster Better Charles Duhigg, “The people who are most successful at learning are the ones who know how to use disfluency to their advantage.” Disfluency means to make learning difficult at first and harder throughout the process of retention in order for it to be truly understood. A well-designed senior project does exactly that; it makes students work for knowledge and allows students to earn knowledge that’s more embedded in the mind.

Lastly, senior projects are important because they can provide an abundance of perks to the surrounding community, which should include town-gown, tech transfer, alumni associations, career services, parents, recruiters, employers and entrepreneurs. This is related to the comment I made above on pairing projects with public expos to multiply greater value.

Senior projects represent a host of opportunities on many levels to improve the Higher Education experience while, at the same time, they help justify the costs and time commitment students and their parents have invested in a college education. They go a long way toward fixing problems with college because the objective is placed squarely back upon relevant learning and applying takeaway education.

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