Tech Forward: Learning and Growing Outside the Classroom

Students talking on the Michigan Tech campus
Students talking on the Michigan Tech campus
Bonnie Gorman, Michigan Tech's dean of students and associate provost for student affairs, provides the next installment in our Tech Forward series,

Michigan Tech's thought leaders share their ideas to prepare students and the University for a rapidly changing future. Dean of Students Bonnie Gorman explains why it’s critical to integrate personal development into the educational experience.

As part of the Tech Forward initiative, members of the campus community were asked what skills and qualities students will need to be prepared to work and, ultimately, be leaders in a world of unrelenting innovation and rapid change. The final list contained 16 items:

  • Communication
  • Critical Thinking
  • Networking
  • Teaming
  • Confident
  • Hands-on/Can-do Approach
  • Self-motivated
  • Willing to Take Responsible Risks
  • Computational Thinking
  • Leadership
  • Systems Thinking
  • Adaptable
  • Good Community/Global Citizen
  • Resilient/Tenacious
  • Self-aware
  • Comfortable with Ambiguity

Students develop many aspects of these skills and qualities in activities outside the classroom. We also know that when classroom learning and co-curricular activities reinforce each other, student development occurs more holistically.

Recognizing this, it is useful to consider the development of the whole student as part of the educational experience. Richard Keeling, in Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience, explains that effective pedagogy depends on “the essential integration of personal development with learning; it reflects the diverse ways through which students may engage, as whole people, with multiple dimensions and unique personal histories, with the tasks and content of learning.”

"Giving students the opportunity to wrestle with and apply what they learn at their own pace and in contexts of their choosing is essential. Toward this end, we need to be more intentional in facilitating programs that help students develop the skills and characteristics we identify as valuable."Bonnie Gorman, Dean of Students

Here’s an example of this type of development in action. A few weeks ago, Michigan Tech’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) failed to follow the procedures outlined in its constitution when appointing a new vice president due to an unexpected vacancy. Someone then challenged the appointment on those grounds. Instead of explaining away the mistake and moving on, the members of USG walked back their decision and started over.

On display at the lengthy meeting where they took corrective action was confidence, risk-taking, flexibility, discomfort, integrity, respectful (but a little heated) communication and a series of decision flow charts. Also on display were students testing their sense of self ­— what they believe, how strongly they believe it and whether they are committed or brave enough to take action. A strong sense of self, and the ability to work with others for a larger purpose, is foundational. It is in settings like the USG meeting – and in many other co-curricular activities ­— that students practice important skills, apply the knowledge they learn in the classroom and grow.

Going forward, a challenge we face is that students today are different from previous generations of students. This is the first generation that has been "connected" through technology since birth. It is also a generation that reports higher levels of loneliness and anxiety.

The research on Gen Z notes that this group of students tends not to have had the same kinds of life experiences as their predecessors. Examples include dating less, lower rates of experimenting with drugs and alcohol, driving less (or not even getting a license at all) and limited physical activity. They have grown up in a world of terrorism and mass shootings, and function with an underlying level of fear. They saw their parents struggle after the financial collapse of 2008 and, in an age of rising tuition, they are more concerned about the cost of college than ever. When they arrive on campus, today’s students bring with them increased needs and higher expectations.

In order for these students to thrive, it will be more important than ever to provide an environment that fosters a safe and inclusive sense of belonging.

"As a university, we already embrace the notion of community as an institutional value and provide opportunities for students to connect in myriad ways, from a simple expression of concern to campus employment, involvement in student organizations and the celebration of traditions."

Students who are involved on campus often talk about Tech being their “home.” Still, in the 2018 Student Satisfaction Survey, 20 percent of students report not being involved in any activities on campus. We need to be better at linking these students to both people and experiences that foster their growth and development.

If we want this generation of Michigan Tech students to acquire the skills they will need to succeed professionally and become community leaders, we will also need to be more responsive to their social development and, in general, their health and well-being. These students may be less sexually active and using substances less in high school, but that just makes the college environment ripe for exploration. They will need more information about risky behaviors, healthy relationships, the meaning of consent and even the importance of sleep and exercise.

Moreover, we need to provide avenues for students to practice self-care and protect their mental health. Programs like the Wellness Environment at the University of Vermont that connects neuroscience with the development of healthy brains and bodies in a supportive community has seen significant results.

"We need to pursue an institutional strategy to promote health and overall well-being, not as an afterthought, but as an integral part of the educational experience, as with other out-of-the-classroom experiences."

Finally, as we commit to the goal of preparing leaders for a rapidly changing world, we need to remember that many students care more about making a difference in the world and less about position and job title. According to Cory Seemiller, author of Generation Z Goes to College, these students are passionate about addressing significant social issues like climate change and internet security. “This blend of work and passion,” Seemiller writes, “will likely provide them with enriching and fulfilling career experiences and redefine the concept of work for them.”

Whether we work with students inside or outside the classroom, our goal should be to provide them tools and space to learn, practice and grow.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.