By Christopher Galvan
Phrases such as “learn by doing,” “a commitment to excellence,” and “application of knowledge” echo throughout the Cal Poly Pomona academic community. The phrases suggest that the university is the epitome of higher education. However, with the evidence at hand, it is difficult to come up with tangible proof that the university represents the best of what a public institution has to offer.
The concept of a polytechnic institution sprung from a need to meet the needs of growing industries in the 1700s, which required skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). This contrasted curriculum at existing universities, which focused on a liberal arts pedagogy rather than forward-thinking and laboratory-driven learning.
What sets Cal Poly Pomona apart from other universities today is its almost exclusive emphasis on applied research and its learn-by-doing philosophy. In terms of practicality, applied research yields the greatest amount of real-world knowledge. Theoretical research is often unorthodox, but possesses the greatest potential to be groundbreaking and innovative. At CPP we restrict our collective ability to break new ground, which is the nature of an “applied research” institution.
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Marten denBoer said that we should focus on research that is applicable in today’s world.
“I think what we do focus on, and should focus on, is research that has benefits for society” and also that provides opportunities for students,” said denBoer. “I would say there is no university that focuses on research that has no use today.”
Departments in the Colleges of Agriculture, Engineering, Science and the Collins College of Hospitality Management all use classroom exercises that are applicable techniques in their fields. However, this student-involved teaching style does not represent the majority of CPP curriculum.
Some non-STEM fields do have the distinct luxury of providing both learn-by-doing experience and theoretical exploration. English composition, for example, warrants a comprehensive understanding of reading, writing, and editing that you can only fine-tune through practice. In that sense, learning by doing is not special to CPP.
Universities ask students to solve problems that matter to the world engages in a learn-by-doing model, said Dale Turner, a professor in the philosophy department.
“Perhaps the way CPP is innovative is that it has always taught that way,” said Turner.
Edward Rocklin, a professor in the English & foreign languages department, has taken a unique approach to teaching Shakespeare.
“We’ll get up and try three or four different performances of a scene from ‘Hamlet,'” said Rocklin. “We will also do more theoretical readings, so we’re exploring the play through text and performance. That inherently has to be through doing, if you’re going to find out what a Shakespeare play can do.”
In this way, the learn-by-doing philosophy encourages professors to use nontraditional methods to expand student knowledge and understanding.
“Each of those performances changes what the words are doing, and changes what [characters] are doing,” said Rocklin.
The teacher-scholar program at CPP is designed to encourage professors to stay current in their professions and teaching practices, publish new works and integrate the experience of their scholarship into the classroom to enhance the student learning experience. The intended framework is sound; however its predominant and perhaps most effective application is within the sciences.
“In the sciences, it often happens that students will be working in the lab with the scientists,” said denBoer. “That’s something that we know is very effective in terms of involving students. We want [professors] to be able to show that there are benefits to students. In a field like history, the professor might bring some of her current discoveries in terms of understanding the Civil War better.”
But it appears that students in non-STEM fields at CPP lack the resources to pursue quality undergraduate research, applied or theoretical.
While learning by doing is no longer a new idea in higher education, CPP is distancing itself from innovative institutions that encourage applied and theoretical undergraduate research. Instead, the university is taking the safer, more grounded approach in applying knowledge we know to be tried and true.
“It is not as easy for students to do undergraduate research in the humanities as it is in the sciences, so it doesn’t happen quite as often,” said Turner. “Certainly there is more grant funding for STEM students, but there is also less opportunity to do cutting-edge research in the humanities, in part because to do the research, there’s a certain kind of expertise that’s needed in the humanities that makes undergraduate research more challenging.”
SungAh Choi / The Poly Post
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