Building Beyond the Classroom Walls

03/04/2015 04:20 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

This piece is part of a series of posts from the Founding Class at the Minerva Schools at KGI about their experience reimagining the traditional college experience. Minerva is a new university program that prepares students to solve complex global problems. Minerva's students live and learn in up to seven of the world's greatest cities throughout their time in college and study in small engaging seminars.

Imagine you had to learn how to drive, but instead of getting behind the wheel you were given readings and videos. Realistically, would you pass a driving exam? Studying theory without practice does not enable true learning.

This is true for most subject matters. Traditionally, students like myself have to listen to lectures and memorize information in preparation for school exams. However, examination day is the expiration date for this information. Once the exam is done, students quickly forget what they memorized in class. A successful education should continually encourage students to apply what they learn outside the classroom, helping students build lifelong skills that will continue to serve them after they graduate.

Last year, I studied engineering at a public university in Scotland. In one of my first lectures, my professor read from presentation slides I was given at the beginning of class. As my "new-to-university" buzz faded, it wasn't long before the lectures became tedious. I wanted to study engineering for the opportunity to solve problems and use my knowledge in a practical way, yet university felt like learning how to drive with readings and videos. I tried to change the system as a student representative, but quickly realized that change would be painfully slow. Looking for new challenges, I dove into the few electives offered and became greatly involved in extracurricular activities. I tackled the university experience I thought was limited by finding ways to close the gap between learning and doing. When I was unexpectedly introduced to Minerva last spring, I felt I had found an institution that valued learning for more than just studying for exams.

Although I was studying an applied course like engineering at university, I still felt bounded by the confines of the lecture hall. Minerva seemed like an opportunity to go beyond the classroom walls and onto applying my knowledge to solve problems -- big or small. I was offered a place in the Founding Class to be among a group of driven students from around the world. We would spend our freshman year living at a residence hall in San Francisco, and move to different international cities every semester thereafter. There are no physical classrooms or lectures at Minerva, but instead online seminars give students the opportunity to actively participate in each session. After class, students are free to take advantage of independent city life. While going to Minerva seemed like an obvious choice, it would come at the cost of leaving my engineering studies behind and giving up the safety of an established university degree. My first real lesson in closing the learning-doing gap at Minerva was an ironic moment: to learn how to take calculated risks when faced with an uncertain decision, I joined the Founding Class.

Minerva makes me aware of the learning opportunities I create in everyday life, like the risk I took of leaving my previous university. In one seminar, I learn about tools that can be used to model complex human interactions within social systems. Once I'm acquainted with these concepts, my assignment is to identify the elements that contribute to homelessness in San Francisco -- and go outside to test solutions in the city! Minerva's curriculum helps me intentionally develop fluid and adaptable skills that I previously had to pick up on my own. While living independently in the city, learning is no longer limited to the confines of the classroom -- for example, preconceived notions about culture, careers, and friendships continually melt and remold as I reflect on my experience. From the online seminar to the "city campus", what I learn in class doesn't just benefit me intellectually, but I can also apply it to everything I do thereafter. Graduation won't be transitioning into the real world, but will be an opportunity to continue the work I started at Minerva.

Minerva helps students build lifelong skills through opportunities to apply their learning outside the classroom. I wanted to study engineering for the opportunity to apply my knowledge in a practical way; however, I was disenchanted with my engineering program not because it failed to interest me, but because there was a gap between learning and doing. There is no ideal higher education experience, but there are definitely better solutions than the traditional approach.

"Tell me and I will forget.
Show me and I will remember.
Involve me and I will understand."
(Old Chinese proverb)

The current education system is stuck at the "Show me and I will remember" stage, but we don't remember much past examination day. You can't learn to drive simply by watching a video or reading a book -- you learn by getting behind the steering wheel. Our education system should do the same.