Undergraduate research and experiential learning

Photo by Katherine Olson
Photo by Katherine Olson

Experiential learning, to me, is stepping outside of the bounds. Way, way outside of the bounds – think, teaching kids in a village how to make water filters to model the process of water percolating through soil and sand before reaching an aquifer. Think, live-translating a conversation between an Australian expert and a Chinese treatment plant operator about water quality standards and environmental economics. Think, eating dinner with a group of professors from my future research team at Nanjing University, chatting excitedly about the group’s industrial wastewater treatment technology consulting companies and how I can get involved next year.

Experiential learning is out of the classroom, off the books, sinking your teeth into the raw meat of what you’re passionate about. For me, that’s Mandarin Chinese and environmental engineering, and there’s no better place to combine those than, well, China. I have spent one winter break and two summers there, educating youth about nature and the environment, working at wastewater treatment plants, attending conferences, doing internships, exploring dirty waterways, chatting with new friends about environmental economics and pollution (you’d be surprised how many people are actually interested), and doing anything else I can get my hands on.

But how did I end up where I am today? I wouldn’t be here without undergraduate research, that’s for sure. Almost three years ago, I joined an environmental engineering group; and on my first day, I found that my labmates had turned this seemingly ordinary laboratory into a Mandarin-speaking workplace. I watched them chatting about their experiments in Mandarin and secretly seethed. I had to get on that bandwagon, whatever it took. “Microbial fuel cell” was one of my first words. I self-taught at night, said simple phrases to my labmates (to their amusement) by day, and fell completely in love with the thrill and excitement of Chinese, especially given its relevance to my field. Soon I was gossiping with everyone in the lab office and talking with my advisor about my experiments, all in Chinese. My parents gradually accepted the idea of me moving to China permanently, and I’ve already got my foot in the door into the world of freelance translating and interpreting.

The most important lesson I learned from all this was, joining a lab doesn’t mean you have to love research and want to do it for the rest of your life. There are tons of other things you can get out of undergraduate research. In fact, I found from my experience in this research group and a couple of others that I don’t particularly like lab work – and that was the reason why my interview at Nanjing resulted in my placement in a group that focuses heavily on the cost, maintenance, and feasibility of new technology, in a consulting company setting.

Thanks to the foundational experiences of undergraduate research, I will be much more well-prepared for what is ahead of me after I graduate this May. I am so grateful for the experiences I got through undergraduate research, more grateful than I can ever express to my research advisor without just sounding weird. Sure, most of my experiments failed, but I didn’t fail. I found out what I like, and more importantly, what I didn’t like. Through conferences, technology competitions, and research presentations, I improved my critical thinking, creativity, networking skills, and ability to tackle a challenge and learn from defeat. And, of course, I found a passion for a second language that completely changed the trajectory of my life and brought me to new places I’d never even imagined.

That’s experiential learning. You can’t grade it, you can’t find it in a textbook, but you can feel it. You’re full of knowledge and experiences and stories and new skills that you never expected to have, and you may even find that others become inspired by your story. You don’t necessarily have to go to the other side of the globe – that’s just where my track took me. Experiential learning is everywhere, and undergraduate research is a great starting point to open more doors to opportunities to pursue interests and passions you may not even know you have yet. So what’s stopping you? Get out there and explore.

On Friday, April 13, the Student Experiential Learning Conference will showcase VT-shaped learning through a celebration of the work of Virginia Tech undergraduate students. Proposals are invited from students of all years and majors on projects and experiences that demonstrate purpose-driven experiential learning including: undergraduate research, service-learning, study abroad, internships, and other curricular and co-curricular programs and activities.