Though the term may be new, the concept of experiential learning (learning by doing) has been around since the dawn of complex life. It is true that many animals rely on instinct for basic functions, but for intricate behaviors like hunting, building dams, and even social grooming, animals learn by watching others and following along, a.k.a. by doing. The ability to pass on information and learned behaviors over generations quickly rocketed humans into apex animal position, so it is no wonder that moving away from experiential learning, e.g. towards just “dumping” information from one brain into another through dull lectures, has had less success.
Here’s the rub though, hands-on learning is hard. It demands a much higher level of attention per student from the instructor that forces class sizes to be small. Experiential learning can also be expensive, as students must be allowed, and sometimes even encouraged, to make mistakes, which uses up resources. But the outcome of hands-on learning is an undeniably better-prepared cohort of students which knows how to succeed and what to do when they fail.
Several years back I taught a course on Bees and Beekeeping as the instructor of record at Virginia Tech. This course was split into two sections, which could be taken separately or together, one, a lecture three times a week with 70ish students, and the other a lab with only 16 students. The two sections were complementary; the lecture taught students about the complex biology of honey bees (which are like, the whackiest and coolest insects if you ask me), the business of beekeeping and managerial strategies, while the lab actually taught students how to keep bees out in one of Tech’s experimental aviaries. The lecture covered the basics of beekeeping, but not a single one of those students who only took the lecture walked out of that class at all prepared to keep bees. Nothing can prepare someone to be surrounded by tens of thousands of stinging insects, repeatedly knocking into your hood screen and trying to crawl up your pants leg. Being calm around bees is something most people must practice.
Unfortunately, we could not afford to have every student in the lecture also take the lab, it just would not be feasible with the number of instructors (myself and a TA), the number of hives and materials, and the space of the apiary itself. That being said, we are pushing to increase the number of students that we can take out to the apiary, and the lab portion of the course may soon become its own class entirely, with greater support for space and materials.
Finally, I must plug how great Entomology, as a discipline, is for experiential learning. As with bees, there is nothing quite like holding a hissing cockroach or allowing a walking stick to crawl across your face. Insects are amazing, bizarre creatures that must be experienced to be believed, and many of the Entomology courses around the country contain some level of hands-on experience, whether it be collecting in the field or checking local residences for bed bugs (these are often the bravest Entomologists). So, if you are ever looking for examples of experiential learning, Entomology departments are a great place to start!