NSU students benefit from experiential learning model


NATCHITOCHES – Joey Wills, a Northwestern State University student from Central, spent his summer researching and writing about cybersecurity gaps, cyber-workforce gaps and cyber-crime attribution at the Cyber Innovation Center (CIC) in Bossier City.  Wills is majoring in computer information systems with a concentration in application development. Before his internship began, he expected writing papers for hours at a time to be grueling;  instead, he discovered that writing on a topic he enjoys without the distraction of homework and extracurricular activities was enjoyable and rewarding.


“The CIC not only enhanced and supplemented nearly everything I have learned in school but just working in the environment of the CIC gave me an idea of the ‘big picture’ for cyber related challenges from a city’s perspective and the research that I conducted at the CIC gave me a view of the cyber related challenges our nation faces,” he said. “By the end of the internship I was able to make connections I had never before seen between what used to be some of the seemly meaningless things we do in the classroom and how important they actually are in the big picture.”


Wills’ experience with his internship is part of a new learning model at Northwestern State University that will require graduates to participate in high-impact experiential learning, choosing from an internship/apprenticeship, research thesis/project or capstone course/project.  Administrators termed the model Learning for Life.


“These opportunities, which we refer to as experiential learning, provide students with hands-on experience before they graduate and move into the first phase of their careers, graduate school or professional school,” said Dr. Vickie Gentry, interim provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.  “This year’s incoming freshmen, the Class of 2021, are the first in which the model will be fully integrated.”


A team of faculty and administrators developed the model, referred to as the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), and established guidelines for implementation and assessment. Throughout a student’s academic journey, faculty and advisors will identify learning outcomes for each student’s project or internship to ensure that it is effective, ethical and meets academic goals.


“The goal of the Learning for Life QEP is preparing students to transfer theory into practice as they transition from the university to a career,” according to the QEP framework document. “By bridging gaps between theory and application, one of NSU’s core values – students – remains a priority.  Experiential education will assist in the ever-growing individual, scholar and professional.”


Prior to the Fall 2017 semester, faculty participated in an experiential learning conference where Dr. Stephanie J. Thomason, president-elect of the board of the National Society for Experiential Education and associate professor of management at the University of Tampa, discussed the principles and best practices of experiential education.  The best forms or experiential learning are framed by guidelines that serve all parties involved, but put learning first, she said.


“The QEP conference offered a wonderful opportunity for us to realize that we have to take the great education experience already offered at Northwestern State to an even higher level,” said interim QEP Director Bill Brent.  “The ‘capstone’ experience course that will be offered in all academic programs by the end of 2020 is going to truly provide a ‘Learning for Life’ experience for every student at NSU.”


Wills’ internship at CIC was an eye-opening.


“One of the most rewarding aspects of interning at the CIC this summer was getting to see all the amazing things happening and about to happen in our state and country,” he said.  “While I wanted to get into research with physical aspects before the internship, I never consider taking a research position that involved nothing but writing papers. Today I would jump at the opportunity.”


He plans to graduate in May and will pursue a Ph.D. in a computer science field.


NSU’s Learning for Life model not only provides practical experience, but is also a valuable networking opportunity.


James Leach, a May 2017 graduate from Longview, Texas, who earned a degree in music business, is employed fulltime as an audio/video technician at Margaritaville Resort and Casino in Bossier City.  Having learned on his own and from mentors the basics of audio production, Leach got involved with KNWD, NSU’s student-run radio station, as a production assistant.  Working with student media and as an audio engineer for a contemporary worship service, Leach gained valuable leadership skills and more diverse technical knowledge while making connections with other professionals that helped him get a foot in the door of the entertainment industry.


“I take a lot of pride in the work I do, and I treat everyone on stage like the rock star I want to be,” Leach said.  “Because of that, I’ve made some nice connections, and network points, with many nationally touring engineers and band members.”


One connection led to his internship at Margaritaville last spring.  After graduation, he was hired fulltime at Margaritaville where he continues to learn about audio networks and recording.


“You can’t change your past, but you write your future.  I always try to remember that when I meet and interact with people, young or old, because you never know who will become a key person in your life.  If you are lazy, they’ll remember.  If you’re constantly on your phone, they’ll remember.  If you work hard and are willing to learn, they’ll remember.  All this to say:  take a chance and make an opportunity for yourself.  Things don’t always fall into your lap, but do what it takes to catch moments when they come your way.”


For more information on NSU’s Learning for Life QEP visit https://www.nsula.edu/learningforlife/

James Leach, a recent NSU grad, made important networking connections during his internship at Margaritaville Casino and Resort. He is now employed full time at the casino as an audio/video technician for concerts and other productions. Experiential learning in the form of internships, research projects and capstone courses are now part of the undergraduate curriculum with NSU’s new Quality Enhancement Plan, “Learning for Life.”