Thursday, May 17, 2012

Learning by Doing in Watertown, South Dakota

By Evan D. Robertson, Project Associate.

I’ve been as far north as Bird Island, Minnesota. Just two weeks ago, I can now claim to have been as far north as Watertown, South Dakota. Watertown sits on the stretch of I-29 between Sioux Falls, SD and Fargo, ND. Much of the land between Minneapolis and Watertown is primarily agricultural: the view from thirty thousand feet reveals neatly subdivided plots of land with undeviating roads vanishing far into the horizon. As we approached the City of roughly 21,000 people, the plane took a hard left revealing Lake Kampeska an immense body of water which I guess I should have expected given the City’s name. Having set a new record for northerly travel, I was in for a tour of a nationally recognized, best practice community college.

Lake Area Technical Institute is a two-year technical college just a few blocks from Uptown (Watertown’s geographic heart). The Institute was founded in 1965 as the first technical school in South Dakota. Enrollment during the 2010-2011 school year reached 1,638 students. Only 69 students were from out of state. Diversity was admittedly an improvement area the Institute is actively seeking to address. Of the 1,638 students, only 67 were non-white. Given the demographics of the surrounding community, however, this is fairly representative. Two of the most surprising statistics: 75 percent of students work part-time or full-time while attending school and 98 percent of students find employment upon graduating or are continuing their education.

Lake Area Tech has adopted what I would call an ethos of “learning by doing.” During our tour, while many students were deeply engaged in their textbooks (it was finals week), most students were involved in some form of activity be it diagnosing a mechanical difficulty on an automobile, repairing diesel engines, tinkering with circuit boards, programming manufacturing robots, or sending sparks flying by sanding down metal. This pragmatic mentality is supported by a generous local philanthropic community and alumni network. Many of the automobiles students were working on were donated by local residents or by those that just wanted to get their car fixed. Agricultural technology students are able to learn on the newest equipment thanks to Lake Area’s partnership with Case IH. From the alumni, LuAnn Strait (Director of Institutional Relations) casually mentioned to us that one of the former alumni who worked for a large global logistics firm donated a Boeing 727 that the company was planning to retire to the Institute, providing students with a real-world laboratory and indicative of the Institute’s relationship with the private sector.

All of Lake Area Technical Institute’s programs of study were carefully considered to ensure that the skills obtained by the student would be marketable post-graduation. The Institute will only create or maintain a program of study that has the potential to provide employment for graduating students. Moreover, programs of study are supported by an Advisory Board of professionals who ensure that students are receiving the most up-to-date training techniques and give feedback regarding graduates’ performance in the workplace. This connection with the private sector is vital, providing the Institute with tacit information critical to maintaining their effectiveness and their students’ relevancy in the labor market. This information exchange, along with a myriad of other best practices (such as providing joint-use classroom space to the local high school across the street and constructing a wind turbine for their energy technology students) has earned Lake Area Tech a top five spot in the Aspen Institute's Prize for Community College Excellence.

As I wrote about in an earlier blog (apologies for the shameless self-promotion), I’ve been contemplating how resistant community colleges and universities would be to the impending release of MIT, Stanford, and other top tier universities’ open source coursework. With the Lake Area experience behind me, it now seems clear that those institutes who are able to alter the classroom environment to one that actively engages students and adopts a practice of experiential, collaborative learning will thrive in the digital education area. You can replace the lecture, but you just can’t easily digitize a Boeing 727. You can’t supplant the pragmatic classroom.