Richards: The importance of hands-on learning in college

Jason Richards, Staff Columnist

For most people, college is the last step they take before being thrown into the deep end of reality and entering the workforce in a field of their choice. It’s also a daunting endeavor that nobody tells you about until you grow nearer and nearer to graduation.

The most important facet of your college education is to get the necessary experience required to thrive in your future and get the most out of your career path.

More than once throughout your studies, you stop and ask yourself, “What the heck do I need to know this for?” And oftentimes—usually in hindsight—you realize you really didn’t need to know that information. These general education requirements are important though, and a completely different topic altogether. However, for the purposes of this piece, we’re concerned about the importance of hands-on learning in classes. I’m not talking about physics labs where you send two frictionless carts at each other hooked up with sensors and velocity graphs, but rather the classes in your concentration that have you doing what you might actually be doing in your future endeavors.

This semester, I enrolled in Introduction to Connected Devices, a joint class between Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University, where we are tasked with building a smart lamp, cutely named Lampi. 

Lampi is––for all of my readers that are nerdy enough––powered by a Raspberry Pi, which is a small pocket computer. On Lampi, we connect this small computer to a light strip and touch screen display and program it to, well, be a lamp (albeit a smart one)!

It’s an amazing concept. We were given kits to build Lampi from scratch. The outer pieces are 3D printed in Sears think[box], and we’re provided with all the components to get started. Right off the bat, this gives me a personal connection to what I’m building and learning at the same time. I immediately feel much more motivated to put my own ideas into this smart lamp and get the most out of it.

The personal connection is what became totally apparent as the unique learning component of this class. It’s great to have a “that’s so cool!” moment when completing an assignment, and it’s unfortunate that this moment is such a rarity. 

Most classes have daunting assignments that make it hard to connect to, and enjoy, learning as a student, but these hands-on classes have the potential to live in the mind for a long time. You can physically show off what you’ve done and really cherish it. What’s a better way to learn?

Now, I know not every class is compatible with this hands-on approach to learning the concepts, but I can think of many classes that would benefit from a step back from the traditional theory-driven process.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s now more difficult than ever to provide a hands-on and interactive approach to learning. We’ve changed the process of learning forever. Who knows if the concept of a snow day will even exist anymore, with the new realization that online learning is becoming more and more feasible as a substitute for in-person classes?

Real experience is hard to come by in a college curriculum. We usually rely on internships and co-ops to teach us these things, but there are lessons to be found in choosing interactive and physical classes, rather than online or theoretical ones. Despite usually being overlooked by professors and their curriculum, things like physical teamwork, industry standards and real-world software and applications can be explored through the use of hands-on coursework, and are a critical part of our future employment.