3 Questions: Kate Trimble on experiential learning at MIT

Kate Trimble officially took the helm of the Office of Experiential Learning (OEL) on Dec. 1, but she is no stranger to the Institute. Since 2016, Trimble has been the associate dean for the Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Public Service Center, where she focused on energizing and expanding the PKG center’s mission of inspiring and preparing MIT students to address complex social and environmental challenges. As the OEL’s new senior associate dean and director, she sees a promising landscape in which she can leverage existing opportunities and expand the office’s mission and impact.

Q: What intrigued you about this role?

A: MIT is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind place for experiential learning. Experiential learning — applied, immersive work in real-world settings with real-world stakes and consequences — is everywhere at MIT. It’s happening all over campus: in faculty labs, in Edgerton’s makerspaces, in first-year learning communities like Terrascope, through public service programs at PKG. And it’s happening around the world, through programs like D-Lab and MISTI [MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives]. It’s just part of the DNA of MIT — “mens et manus” [“mind and hand”]. Before they graduate, 91 percent of undergraduates do a UROP [Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program], and UROP is just one of the ways that students can be involved in experiential learning. So students are already participating in huge numbers, and when you look at survey data, they really enjoy these experiences and get a lot out of them personally and professionally. When you talk to alumni and ask them about their most transformative experiences as students, often what they point to is an experiential learning opportunity they had.

So, what’s really compelling to me personally, and part of why I took this position, is that I think experiential learning is a great way to learn. I think it’s incredibly complimentary to the more traditional educational model, and constructively complicates learning for students. Experiential learning is intense and often messy, but that messiness helps students understand and master the concepts that they’re learning in the lecture hall. Having said that, the experiential learning landscape at MIT is a bit of a jungle, so I’m excited about the challenge of thinking creatively and collaboratively about how to make it easier for students to explore their options and choose programs that help them build the skills and knowledge they’ll need, here at MIT and later in life.

Q: Can you say more about that? What would you say the current state-of-the-union is here in terms of experiential learning?

A: Although there’s a lot of terrific experiential learning happening at MIT, it’s happening in a fairly disorganized way. When I was applying for the job, I tried to put myself in the shoes of an MIT student who was trying to figure out what to do next summer. There are so many options — whether it’s a UROP, or participating in the solar car team, or doing an internship with an NGO, or taking a class that includes fieldwork abroad. It’s kind of a free-for-all. And while there’s strong word-of-mouth about many of these opportunities, students still have to search through more than a dozen different websites, selection criteria, deadlines, fees or funding, and more to learn about all of the available options. That’s a lot of time that students are investing just to understand what the possibilities are, and we all know that time is something that MIT students don’t have a lot of.

When you think about the curriculum, and you think about majors, these are intentionally-designed, well-organized and articulated pathways for students. It’s clear which classes teach certain material or topics, which are prerequisites, what the required or recommended sequence is. But we don’t have an analogous structure for experiential learning — there’s no course catalog or even a central website to easily search through all of the different options and see how they might fit together and relate to what students are learning in their classes.

So, I think the state of the union is that there’s an incredible but somewhat overwhelming array of opportunities, and students are currently attacking the problem with typical MIT gusto. They’re choosing their own adventures from all of the great programs on and off campus. But we could do more to help students understand all of their options and make choices with full information.

Q: Where do you see other opportunities to make an impact?

A: I want to explore how OEL can be a resource for the entire campus. OEL is currently home to five programs and centers [D-Lab, Edgerton Center, Global Education, PKG Center, and UROP], but how do we start to become the place where students, staff, and faculty can find advice on building strong partnerships with community agencies, resources on reflective practice or risk management, or support to incorporate more project- or community-based learning into a class? How can OEL be an effective advocate for experiential learning and create a rising tide that lifts all experiential boats, in a way?

We also have the opportunity to start a conversation about how MIT could more intentionally or formally integrate experiential learning into its educational architecture. If you read the recent report from NEET [New Engineering Education Transformation], the emerging leaders in the field have moved project-based learning from the sidelines to the center of their educational models. It’s not an optional or bolt-on activity but a fundamental part of how students learn and how subjects are taught. So, the question is, what would that approach look like at MIT? Is that something that students want? Is that something the faculty want? And if that’s the direction we want to go in, how can OEL help MIT move in that direction? We shouldn’t be prescriptive in terms of what happens or how it happens — why limit the incredible creativity here at MIT? But we can encourage and nurture innovative ideas and programs, while creating new tools and resources to help people do what they already do better, or do more of it.