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REAL Update

Pandemics are tough on experiential learning.

Internships rescinded, field experiences delayed, research experiences shut down, and study abroad programs cut short: these are just some of the COVID-19 related disappointments students had to navigate this spring and summer.

As we look to fall, however, and begin the process of returning to campus, it’s important to recognize: things may not be as bad as they first seemed. According to a National Association of Colleges and Employers brief, while 16% of summer internships were rescinded by employers (a lower number than I expected), the majority of employers chose to adapt and to create meaningful virtual experiences for students that focused on shorter-term projects. These NACE findings highlight the ever-growing need for flexibility and innovation in experiential learning to keep moving us as close as possible to 100% participation. (For more on the NACE brief, see "Employer Insights: Before and After the Start Of Virtual Summer Internships During Covid-19." VACE Webinar. June 29, 2020.

The NACE report also indicates that COVID-19 brought into sharp focus the kinds of 21st century skills and characteristics most valued by employers. These include being able to:

  • Work on projects outside one’s immediate scope of duties or expertise
  • Practice virtual professionalism
  • Effectively communicate, both orally and in writing
  • Take ownership of one’s work
  • Be flexible and proactive
  • Ask for what you need

These highly-valued skills are also highly teachable, and documented in the literature as among the major benefits of hands-on learning writ large.

In other words, hands-on learning is about more than workforce readiness. It’s about world readiness, and it can take place in any discipline and can be fostered in and beyond the classroom, including in virtual environments.

Below are just three examples of initiatives REAL sponsored this year with the goal of increasing student access to the hands-on learning experiences we know can make a difference.

REAL Engaged

Student Opportunity Center

Screenshot of SOCWe know that finding experiential learning activities can be a challenge for students. So our new platform, Student Opportunity Center, collects all VCU courses tagged as a REAL activity — as well as opportunities from Handshake, HandsOn RVA, and other sources — into one central place.

Read more about this exciting new software and share any questions/comments you have with us at!

REAL Reflection (partnership with the Office of Service-Learning)

VCU’s Office of Service-Learning is a national leader in the conversation connecting reflection to deep learning, civic knowledge and engagement. The OSL team, part of the Center for Community Engagement and Impact, are frequently asked to lead professional development on assignment design and integration of reflection into classroom practice. This academic year, the team — Lynn Pelco, Amanda Hall, and Katie Elliott — brought this training home so to speak and offered the second part of a series on reflective practice. The first part was a half day seminar provided in May 2019 to an audience of over 50 faculty and staff. This fall, two cohorts of graduates of the seminar participated in REAL Reflection: Reflecting Learning Communities led by Dr. Amanda Hall. The cohort groups met every other week throughout the semester experimenting with their own reflective practice and engaging in assignment design charrettes. Feedback from the series was overwhelmingly positive, with the majority of participants recording that they intended to continue working together even once the formal workshop ended. Prior to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, REAL and OSL planned on repeating the learning series, with a half-day training scheduled for May 2020. Look for updates this fall as we explore how we can continue this powerful and successful workshop series.

REAL Challenge Grants

The REAL team introduced the Challenge Grants in December 2019, with the goal of awarding funding to support the integration of experiential learning into the VCU student experience. We were blown away by both the quantity and the quality of the applications we received.

Competition was stiff, but in the end the selection committee narrowed it down to eight worthy recipients. A brief description of each project is outlined below. A special thank you to all who applied, and congratulations to the recipients!

Elizabeth Bambacus: You First Peer Mentoring Engagement for UNIV 391: Advanced Peer Mentoring and Leadership

Funding will be used to sustain and enhance an existing course in which upper-level first-generation students mentor first-year first-generation students. The funding provided will support in-person events bringing together mentors and mentees, and also fund a Strengths Quest assessment for the mentors. The Strengths Quest assessment helps students recognize their strengths and intentionally apply them to both coursework and mentoring.

Thomas Roper: Coffee an Engineering Approach: A Hands-on Freshman Engineering Experience

This project transitions a traditional lecture based classroom setting into a coffee laboratory - helping CLSE 101 students become familiar with chemical engineering concepts using the non-threatening vehicle of coffee. The current course is a standard lecture based introductory chemical engineering course. Students will experience the fundamentals of chemical engineering such as heat transfer, filtration and mass balance all in the context of brewing coffee. The funding will be used to purchase supplies and equipment for the various techniques of coffee brewing.

Lindsay Freeman: Building a Pipeline for Better Environmental Studies Internships and Careers

VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies (CES) strives to offer REAL experiences to all of our students. Increasing early exposure to potential internship and job sites will reduce barriers and increase access to REAL experiences, which frequently translate into job offers. During the spring and fall 2018 semesters, our advising office piloted the Careers & Conversations (C&C) speaker series featuring five guests from a variety of backgrounds connected to the field of environmental studies. Our goal is to strengthen C&C during the 2020-2021 academic year by bringing in six local speakers and increasing our student audience. Funding for this project will help attract high-quality guest speakers and incentivize student participation in the Careers and Conversations events held by CES, with the goal of building partnerships with these environmental professionals who can serve as a pipeline for students.

Dina Tamar Garcia: Striving and Thriving of Underrepresented Students in STEM programs at VCU

The goal of this project is to not only increase underrepresented students’ engagement in STEM, but also to create a culture that celebrates their identities and fosters a sense of belonging in these fields. Funding will help cover costs of an in-person networking event and equipment, as well as support a paid-internship focused on development of a year-long media campaign for the program.

Madeline Goldman: Engaging More Students in Experiential Learning by Attending the "Applying Student Development Theory to College Transition Programs" Online Course

To address a gap in sophomore-year retention programming, Madeline, an academic advisor for the Forensic Science program, will attend an online course on students in transition with the goal of creating strategies and developing initiatives to address sophomore attrition. Through learning more about issues affecting sophomores in particular, she hopes to develop programs that will support sophomores as they develop academic plans, use the Major Maps, and plot their pathway to getting “REAL” experiences. She plans to also work with faculty and gain curriculum insight on how to engage in REAL at an earlier level in the Forensic Science major, and to host a webinar with her academic advisor peers to share the key takeaways from the course.

Bioadvising Office: Cultivating a Culture of Internship Engagement in VCU’s Largest Major

This project, led by the Bioadvising Office in the CHS Department of Biology, will focus on implementing a three-step approach to provide biology students with the skills and opportunities needed to secure an internship: preparing students through workshops, preparing smployers through building affiliations, and matching students with employers at an internship matching fair event.

Matthew Vechinski: University College Experiential Learning Student Ambassadors

The funding will be used to pilot an Experiential Learning Student Ambassadors program within University College. Mentored by Matthew Vechinski, the students will be engaged in evaluating student perceptions of experiential learning and disseminating information about the innovative partnerships, experiential learning, and rich community partnerships that are fundamental to the Focused Inquiry, Interdisciplinary Studies, and VCU Common Book programs. In addition, the Ambassadors will promote awareness of VCU’s Student Opportunity Center as a way to find and connect with co-curricular experiential learning opportunities.

Carolyn Watts: Broadening Perspectives on Health Equity: Experiential Learning In Safety Net Providers

This project will focus on the design and preparation for a pilot interprofessional experiential learning pathway for students in partnership with Health Brigade, Richmond’s oldest free clinic. The intent is to create a curriculum to enhance student learning around concepts of health equity through both faculty-led classroom learning and experiential learning working with staff at Health Brigade.

REAL News Briefs

REAL website - now live!
The long-anticipated REAL website is now up and running! We are elated to have a space to post our updates and events, curate resources, and showcase our partners. If you haven’t already, check it out at!

It's Getting REAL: Proposal for a new academic regulation
This spring, the REAL Council passed a motion recommending development of a new experiential learning graduation requirement to be implemented at the undergraduate level, beginning fall 2021. Throughout the summer and fall, Q & A sessions will be held. To learn more, head over to the academic regulation page on the REAL website. There you can read an Executive Summary of the proposal, the concept paper and the plan for operationalization. You can also register for one of the Q &A sessions!

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