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CA Curious

Mission Critical

September 21, 2023

As Director of Equity and Community Engagement, my CCE team and I are in unique positions, holding enviable front-row seats to student discovery and growth. Whether helping a student to create a club, develop a product, build a car, or start a nonprofit, it is our privilege to facilitate opportunities and partner in ways that allow students to bring their ideas to life.

In this work, we have the privilege of watching students stretch themselves, experiment, take risks, and make mistakes. And, whether in the classroom, on the field, in the theater, or outside of our community, the learning we witness is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

As our Director of Enrollment Management, Heather Clarkson shared in a recent Leadership Team meeting, experiential learning is demanded by CA’s mission as a learning community. Put another way: the CCE prepares students for the pursuit of excellence through hands-on opportunities for discovery, innovation, and collaboration.

One of the ways we do this mission-critical work? Our X Days.

X Days—with their flexible schedules, opportunities to pursue academic questions more deeply, time for service learning, and invitations for student leadership—create the perfect opportunity for our students to exercise voice and choice in their learning and to dive deeply into areas of interest, inside and outside of CA.

X Days allow for opportunities for students to apply their knowledge in meaningful real-world contexts and environments. Designed, planned, and directed by students, they also encourage the development of confidence and critical executive skills—like leadership, communication, and time management—that students will need for life beyond our campus.

What can follow is often impactful, even transformative. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that experiential learning is increasingly touted by higher education as a particularly fruitful approach to learning.  

Take, for example, Duke University’s Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education – Experiential Education, Executive Director, Dr. Amanda Kelso, who shares on Duke’s website:  “Experiential education promotes deeper learning and understanding, increased engagement and motivation, and the development of practical skills that can be applied in various contexts. Experiential learners develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, independence, and self-reliance.”

Or the Harvard Kennedy School, whose experiential learning program brings together students, faculty, and state and local project partners—each with their unique skills and experiences–to explore critical community issues from many angles. The research they produce as a result is powerful, with an impact that extends far beyond a single course.

While experiential education is increasingly a hallmark of universities across the country, it is CA’s turn. On Wednesday, students embarked on their first X Day of the year, featuring a remarkable 61 different sessions crafted by both students and faculty, with 549 students participating in full-day experiences and 229 students in half-day sessions.

Just what were they up to? Some wrote novels for a day. Others spent the day at the White Water Center in Charlotte. Or they might have been part of a group that is engineering and exploring their own enteric-coated drug. Or engaged in one of the 58 other opportunities available to them.

Some students designed personal learning opportunities.

A 10th grader worked on a project with a Duke doctor connecting two neurological conditions: multiple sclerosis and glioma (a form of brain tumor/cancer). Leveraging public data, our student is investigating whether genetic predisposition to MS confers risk for adult brain tumors. One of our seniors designed an opportunity to explore the accessibility of healthcare to refugee populations.

Whether designing their own sessions or opting into those designed by peers, the possibilities for personal, relevant, and flexible learning during X Days are nearly limitless—if students actively engage and participate.

As we embark on this year, here are a few ways that you, as parents and caretakers, can support the important work we and your students are doing:

  • Encourage your child to opt in, X Days ARE school days; students should be on time and prepared to learn.
  • Encourage your child to design an X Day that is relevant and meaningful to them.
  • Ask questions about their experiences.

The Center for Community Engagement team is constantly working to refine and improve all our programs, keeping an eye on institutions like Duke, Harvard, and the University of Michigan’s experiential work. This will allow us to continue providing our students with opportunities like X Day that will prepare them for college and life beyond.

Written by Danielle Johnson-Webb, Director of Equity and Community Engagement

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