Buildings, Blocks and Experience

Five years ago when -- deeply impressed by the college's students -- I agreed to become Hampshire's sixth president, my wife, Ellie, was bemused; she knew very well that her non-academic husband, even with a master's in education, would face a steep learning curve. After 40 years as a primary school teacher, mostly with first-graders at the Sidwell Friends School, in Washington, D.C., she was fascinated to share the experience with me.

She has been a wise and patient adviser, as delighted as I am by this college, founded by its four consortium colleges to be an alternative to the lecture-test-grade model. Students here work with a committee of faculty advisers that they recruit, mixing active, project-based learning, with seminars and courses, to explore the questions that drive them.

How does this play out for them? Recently, one of our students was telling me about his studies the past three years, and exclaimed, "I've had more independent study courses than traditional courses." He was pleased, proud, and still seemed surprised this is possible.

Ellie and I often discuss work, and we've realized a connection between teaching at her grade school and learning at Hampshire. Some people may find it difficult to imagine a connection between anything about first grade and college, but the relation is obvious in the most fundamental and instinctual form of learning: the power of experience, of learning by doing.

Providing experience is not the same as providing information. Ellie and I wish schools at every level did more to enable teachers to create opportunities for students to practice experiential learning, a model critical for our world as the pace of change accelerates. Its results cannot be captured on a standardized test, in fact it stands in opposition to standardized teaching-to-a-test, because at its core is innovation and invention.

The importance of active learning struck Ellie and me in a connection she made between the blocks corner of her first-grade classroom, and the "living building" that Hampshire will soon dedicate. It's the college's first new major construction in almost 30 years, and has been designed to meet the most advanced, sustainable, green-building standard in the world. The R.W. Kern Center will produce its own energy, harvest its own water, treat its own waste, and contain no toxic materials. And it's already a teaching tool, as a half dozen of our professors are actively integrating the science, math, and technology behind its operation into our curriculum.

Watching all this unfold at the college, Ellie mentioned the work her first-graders commonly did after a visit to the National Zoo, constructing a model of it. As they worked, they explored what a zoo should be. They had many questions and a few spirited debates as they counted out different-sized blocks from the shelves. How big should the enclosures be? Should there be pools? Places for the animals to sleep?

Self-motivated, they looked up information about animals, to learn their behavior and habitats. The animals need grass and trees and water, so the children cut green fabric into geometric shapes to make outdoor spaces. A student realized that twigs stuck into plasticine would make convincing trees.

In teacher-led discussions, they asked questions like "Why do we have zoos?" and "How long have we had zoos?" They wrote and drew about the project in their journals. The model would remain in the classroom for the week, with children returning to improve it. They proudly gave tours to classroom visitors, explaining their design and how each part functions.

They were immersed in active learning, by experimenting, experiencing and thinking critically. They worked collaboratively with imagination and ingenuity. They were learning science, math, language arts, writing, reading, technology, even social studies and history. And they couldn't have been more excited to dive into the project to solve their own problems and devise solutions, with teachers as advisers.

In the fall, a group of Hampshire professors -- a microbiologist, a hydrologist, an ecologist and a mathematician -- collaborated to develop tutorial seminars that would enable our first-year Hampshire students to model our living building's waste treatment systems. Proctored by the professors, the students led one another through labs in which they built simulated wetlands in test bins, and then poured a simulated gray water stew of vinegar, milk, coffee, toilet paper and other substances through their bins, to mimic what the building's wetlands will filter and treat daily. From their findings, they worked with professors to develop mathematical models of the system.

The building, not open yet, was already teaching. The techniques were sophisticated, but the approach was the same: experience, experiment, model, reflect, learn.

Most of the students in these seminars had not enrolled here to study science or math. But to complete the lab, they had to learn principles of biology, hydrology, and calculus. They learned these skills naturally, and in many cases unknowingly, because they were excited about and challenged by their work.

Coincidentally, 10 years ago, Ellie's school in DC had constructed an LEED Platinum building for its middle school. Not surprisingly, teachers there have been using it in a similar way, having middle school students participate in interdisciplinary labs, learn green building systems, and lead visitors on tours. (As a lifelong environmentalist, I get especially excited when students study their school buildings to learn lessons on use of resources, sustainability, and conservation.)

Learning by doing can be profound at any grade level. There's plenty of evidence that experience results in the kind of learning that students of any age build on and use. The work of George Kuh is particularly relevant here.

Our college has its own evidence that this education works. The U.S. government in February published its census of U.S. colleges whose graduates are most likely to earn a research doctorate, based on the latest ten years of data in the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates -- and Hampshire placed No. 40 in a nation of some 3,000 colleges, among the top 1.4 percent of colleges.

This model of education also spurs innovation. For instance, collaborative research and mathematical models by our professors and students on the ins-and-outs of energy, water, and waste streams in living buildings will provide architects, scientists, and engineers with essential information on this new technology, with implications far beyond our campus. (Every year Forbes studies LinkedIn.com to produce a list of the U.S. colleges that graduate the most entrepreneurial alums -- it ranked Hampshire at No. 6.)

Why is this model of active, experiential, student-driven, project-based education important, across grades, from preschool through college? Most of today's students will end up in jobs that haven't yet been invented. They can be empowered to learn to invent, question, adapt, create, and collaborate with gritty resilience. Students engaged through experience become inspired, self-motivated, and resourceful, as they learn to drive their own learning for a lifetime.

(Note: An abridged version of this essay previously appeared in Education Week.)