ORONO – A virtual workshop led by the University of Maine on how to create inquiry-based learning experiences for freshmen and sophomores has set the stage for their expansion into public universities across the state this year.
Linda Beck, associate dean of experiential and global education at the University of Maine at Farmington; Steve Quackenbush, associate provost and dean of arts and sciences at UMF; and Jason Johnston, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Maine at Près Isle, helped coordinate the workshop.
RLEs are one-credit courses that allow students from all academic disciplines to engage in research and open scholarship early in their academic career. These fall semester courses, designed to bring incoming students to campus a week before the start of the fall semester, challenge them to collect data and samples, conduct experiments, create art and structures, study scientific reports and literature, explore the outdoors, and collaborate to solve problems, answer questions, and express creativity.
The University of Maine system created its pilot RLE program to boost student success and retention. UMaine and its regional campus, the University of Maine at Machias, launched the RLE pilot program last semester offering more than 30 course sections. After a year of the pilot program ended, the system is now looking to expand it to other universities.
More than 100 faculty and staff from across the system attended the January 14 workshop, some with ideas for new LANs. They learned how to design, fund, and evaluate the success of these immersive learning courses, and how to use them to advance scholarship.
The system has earmarked funds for all of its universities to offer RLEs in the fall 2022 semester, said Brian Olsen, associate provost for student success and strategic initiatives at UMaine.
“(RLE) are a transformational way to learn,” said UMaine Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost John Volin. “Our hope is that students will move from knowledge consumers to knowledge producers.”
The RLE Program is a UMS TRANSFORMS initiative created in response to the landmark $240 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation to provide new opportunities for student support, faculty development, and innovative collaborative degree programs to advance Maine’s economy and workforce in partnership with the public and private sectors. UMS TRANSFORMS also called on the system to establish the Maine Graduate and Professional Center, form a Maine College of Engineering, Computing and Information Science, and upgrade facilities for UMaine Athletics.
More than 250 students participated in RLEs at UMaine and UMaine Machias last semester. Classes involved creating various goods with 3D printers, collecting data on the Damariscotta River estuary from a research vessel, making inflatable sculptures, gardening like a medieval monk, and more.
Olsen said UMaine approved 50 class sections for its flagship and regional campus in the 2022-23 academic year.
RLEs don’t just provide freshmen and sophomores with experiential learning opportunities earlier in their studies. Olsen said students who attend can form lasting relationships and learn from the example of junior, senior and graduate students who serve as mentors. The courses, he said, will provide students with skills that will serve them well throughout their academic journey and in their future careers.
“This is an incredible opportunity for our system,” Olsen said.
Workshop participants spoke with the UMaine and UMaine Machias faculty who conducted RLEs last year about their experiences, lessons learned, and adjustments they hope to make.
Karen Beeftink, associate professor of recreation and tourism management at UMaine Machias, described how she expanded on her initial idea for a Bridge Week program in her RLE “Outdoor Adventures and Stewardship.” During the first week of the semester, she and her students went on outdoor adventures, including hiking and overnight camping, to connect with nature, local communities, and each other. For the rest of the semester, her students worked together to create a campus trail network monitoring plan.
Having peer mentors, a small cohort of students, and a Bridge week where they could bond and explore contributed to the success of Beeftink’s RLE, she said.
“That bridge week was key,” she said. “I can’t stress enough how this first week laid the groundwork,” for the course.
The workshop also highlighted a similar effort at UMF: First Year Fusion.
These programs began in 2019 to provide students with a variety of five-day field experiences before orientation, followed by an eight-week freshman seminar. UMF offered 10 First Year Fusion sections in 2021, including “Art and Experience in America,” “Gardening for a Change,” and “Sustainability in Action,” among others.
“We decided to add an experiential component to our freshman seminar,” Beck said.
Daniel Sandweiss, professor of anthropology and quaternary and climate studies at UMaine, said he proposed an RLE for the fall 2022 semester and attended the workshop on Friday to gain insights that could contribute to success. of his course.
Students in his RLE searched for 19th-century artifacts on campus during Bridge Week through archival research, ground-penetrating radar prospecting, and small-scale excavations. During the rest of the semester, they analyzed their findings and wrote reports about them. Sandweiss said he hopes completing an RLE will help him strengthen his connection with students early in their college careers and better understand how they learn.
Sandweiss said he found the workshop interesting and useful for his plans, especially when he spoke with professors who have led RLEs before.
“Now I have a network to contact,” he said. “I think it would be very helpful if in late spring we could have another meeting with the people who did this last year to get feedback on ‘the new RLE plans.’