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Applied Learning Comes of Age, Fueled by STEM and Tech

  • August 15, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solutions Architect

Applied learning—the direct student creation of apps, objects, products, and content through the intelligent use of technology, plus hands-on problem-solving—is no longer just about makerspaces or 3-D printers. It’s beginning to go mainstream, even at the K-12 level. Here’s a look at the latest developments.

New Expectations

Employers and even universities are increasingly hungry for graduates and entering first-year students with project and applied learning experience. In a new Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) survey, 60 percent of employers feel that college students should be expected to complete applied learning projects before graduation. Additionally, significant numbers of employers also stated they would be more likely to hire recent graduates with project experience on their resumes.

Putting Applied Learning to Work

States and forward-thinking K-12 districts have been responding to this priority with new standards and plans for applied learning curricula. In 2013, a new set of K-12 science standards were developed that emphasize project-based learning over factual memorization—a significant change in emphasis.

Next Generation Science Standards, which sets K-12 science standards for states, argues that “coupling practice with content gives the learning context, whereas practices alone are activities and content alone is memorization. It is through integration that science begins to make sense and allows students to apply the material.”

Sixteen states have already certified these practice-based standards, and 24 more states are currently studying their adoption. Schools leading the charge in K-12 education are sparking student innovation with experiential field trips, team research projects and problem-based competitions. NextLesson, a startup focused on facilitating project-based learning in K-12 classrooms, reports 400,000 lesson downloads already by teachers in its pilot districts.

Projects for All Ages

Progress is swiftly being made at both the K-12 and university levels in deploying applied learning, with some student-led projects even becoming operationalized beyond the classroom.

Charlottesville, Virginia’s Albemarle County school system has grown its maker movement since 2013 across the district. Recently, one of its schools has taken things a step further, creating “a grade level-agnostic environment” that focuses on the maker ideals of collaboration, experimentation and creation. Andrew Craft, an Albemarle elementary school teacher, says, “making shouldn’t be isolated. We want to get away from that idea. Makerspaces and classrooms are one and the same.”

A total of 94% of AAC&U institutions surveyed responded that they now operate significant applied learning projects at their college or university. Half of those same institutions require at least some students to participate in significant applied learning. For example, the Stevens Institute of Technology requires a yearlong capstone design project created by senior teams for most graduates. The University of Arizona indicates this by attaching credit for non-classroom experiences right on the transcript via its new 100% Engagement program.

Many interesting projects have blossomed out of these new requirements. Junior high students in a Cincinnati private school designed game apps to educate fellow students about healthier eating. Teens in Cambridge, Massachusetts, write, record and broadcast radio programs through a National Science Foundation-sponsored partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At Northwest Missouri State University, instructors created a student-run public relations agency running real projects for campus institutions. Students at Johns Hopkins University are modeling treatments for injuries on battlefields, launching startups and analyzing items in an archaeological museum. Another Hopkins undergrad did a short session program in Nepal, studying climate change adaptation on-site.

Across the country, the University of California, San Diego created videos that taught master’s students tech skills, storytelling, communication, out-of-the-box thinking and other crucial skills, and created artifacts for learning.

Takeaway: Hands-on applied learning in both universities and K-12 is here to stay, leaping forward in a digital age. It appears to make a real difference in both learning efficacy and career preparedness too. As states and districts continue to align around standards, expect this exciting trend to go mainstream.


1. “Recent Trends in General Education Design, Learning Outcomes, and Teaching Approaches” Association of American Colleges & Universities. 2016.
2. “Applied Learning” Johns Hopkins University. 2016.
3. “NextLesson Gains Momentum by Supporting Interest-Based, Applied Learning in K-12 Classrooms” NextLesson. April 19, 2016.
4. “100% Engagement Goes to the Next Level” The University of Arizona Office of Student Engagement. July 20, 2015.
5. “What Research Says About Project-Based Learning” ASCD. February 2008.
6. “Educating for Democracy by Walking the Talk in Experiential Learning” Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education. 2014.
7. “Clark Montessori Students Design App About Environmental Sustainability & Healthy Food Choices” Partnership for Innovation in Education. May 21, 2015.
8. “Digital Video Projects of, by, and for New Teachers: The Multiple Educational Functions of Creating Multimedia” Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia. 2014.
9. “New K-12 Science Standards Emphasize Hands-On Learning” Southern California Public Radio. March 26, 2015.
10. “New Guidelines Call for Broad Changes in Science Education” The New York Times. April 9, 2013.
11. “The Three Dimensions of Science Learning” Next Generation Science. N.d.
12. “Milstein Commission on Entrepreneurship and Middle Class Jobs” Miller Center University of Virginia. May 9, 2014.
13. “Why Schools Should Teach Entrepreneurship” Entrepreneur. April 14, 2015.
14. “Albemarle County Schools’ Journey From a Makerspace to a Maker District” EdSurge. May 2, 2016.