Experiential Learning at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine

The World is Our Studio. The World is Our Laboratory

Experiential Learning at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine

The World is Our Studio. The World is Our Laboratory

Experiential Learning in the Arts

 Professor Scott Fuller drills into Sebago Lake during a digital photography class.
Professor Scott Fuller drills into Sebago Lake during a digital photography class. Photo: Evan Loignon ’20.

Students bundled in waterproof boots, puffy jackets, and pom-pom hats on a February afternoon adjust their camera settings, steady their arms, focus, and click. Digital images immediately capture the landscape of snow-capped mountains from creative and compelling angles. Professor Scott Fuller operates a manual teal auger, drilling a hole into the ice of Sebago Lake. He lowers a fishing pole into the small opening of slushy water as Nikons and Canons zoom in to capture details.

“We give students permission to experiment. We get them in the field so that they can try things out early on, challenging them to interact with the world and to push boundaries,” says Professor Fuller, who is currently shooting a documentary about Maine wildlife.

Students in this digital photography class benefit from the expansive beauty of Saint Joseph’s College, advantageously situated on 474 acres alongside Maine’s second largest lake. They are encouraged to explore woods and waters, to document, interpret, and reflect, while honing their skills and developing portfolios.

Beyond photography, the Fine Arts Department offers a wide range of courses in painting, drawing, design, sculpture, and videography. Professor Fuller leads the art programs with Professor Chris Sullivan, a conceptual artist, graphic designer, and exhibit developer. Professor Sullivan explains that “the art world is inherently interdisciplinary,” and Saint Joseph’s embraces this concept wholeheartedly. The cornerstone of both the BFA and the BA in Art and Design is a weekly course called Colloquium, which provides cross-discipline dialog about contemporary art and practices for 2D and 3D subjects. Some of the learning outcomes include completing original works of art, critiquing, presenting in public exhibitions, and engaging the public in artistic discourse.

Professor Chris Sullivan provides painting instruction.
Professor Chris Sullivan provides painting instruction. Photo: Evan Loignon ’20.

Most art programs only include one such course for a four-year degree, but students at Saint Joseph’s are required to enroll in Colloquium every year. “We aim to create a seamless integration of theory and practice, a curriculum that emphasizes the importance of art history but that is grounded in the physical practice of making,” explains Professor Sullivan.

“We’re rigorous and have high expectations but the curriculum is dynamic. Joy is an important part of the process,” adds Professor Fuller.

Experiential Learning in the Sciences

This experiential learning pedagogy extends across campus from the arts to the sciences as students regularly conduct field research in the depths of Sebago Lake, on the shores of Casco Bay, and atop peaks of the White Mountains.

“Joy is an important part of the process.”

Professor Scott Fuller

Imagine studying evidence of Cretaceous dinosaur eggs in the American southwest or setting up time-lapse cameras and sensors to document mussels in a national estuary. Short-term travel opportunities on weekends and during school breaks allow students to safely explore parts of the world they might not otherwise ever have the opportunity to visit.

“It’s no surprise that one of the best ways to learn about something is to immerse oneself in it. That applies to environmental and geosciences as much as it does to music, literature, and foreign languages,” explains Associate Professor of Science Dr. Johan Erikson.

Hiking in the White Mountains. Photo: Jarrett Beaulier ’20.

Sophomore and junior students can even elect to spend an entire semester completely off campus through the ten-week Environmental Science Semester (ESS) program. Traveling by foot, car, and boat, students and faculty trek across two countries, three states, and six Maine islands as they gather and interpret data from field sites. Dr. Erikson and Dr. Teegarden began the ESS in 2014 and offer the program every-other-fall.

In an ESS blog post from September 2018, environmental science major Caleb Gravel ’19 writes about his time in Nova Scotia: “When we weren’t doing homework, taking tests, or learning about glacial geology, we walked along the boardwalk in Halifax, went shopping, played games, watched movies, and visited the public garden. After four weeks of traveling and living together, we’ve transitioned from strangers/acquaintances to friends to family.”

Caleb’s words point to an important benefit that emerges from this approach to learning: a genuine sense of belonging among peers and faculty members. Through the cohort model, students develop close relationships, increase capacity for persistence, and solidify their identity as scientists.

Students bond during ESS.
Students bond during ESS. Photo: Elyse Caiazzo ’18.

“The ESS takes an experiential, immersion approach to the teaching of environmental and geosciences because it is effective: problems, concepts, principles, and examples are vibrant and real when experienced first-hand,” says Dr. Erikson. “Through three cycles of the ESS, we have found that student understanding and memory of seemingly complex concepts are far better than the best that on-campus education can generate. In addition, students develop confidence in themselves as scientists, which complements their natural enthusiasm.” Dr. Erikson even invites students to participate in aspects of his own independent research including winter hiking excursions up the slopes of Mount Washington to gather samples for a multi-year analysis of acid snow.

Professor Sullivan and Professor Fuller also welcome students into their personal spheres of work. For instance, Professor Sullivan is overseeing the master planning and design implementation for the new Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine in Portland. His connection to the museum has opened doors to student internships and classroom projects surrounding exhibit design. This includes tackling universal design一how to create inclusive spaces for everyone of all abilities, going beyond just the bare-minimum Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and building codes.

What does a climbing exhibit look like for someone who can’t use his or her legs? How can a person with mobility difficulties access the museum, given the many obstacles found in city streets and on sidewalks? These are just a couple of questions that Professor Sullivan must consider when acting as a liaison between creative designers and architects.

Students in one of his classes are applying their interdisciplinary skills to increase the accessibility of city sidewalks. They are generating and testing ideas for new phone apps, brick design, and legislative solutions to this problem. “We become mentors and engage in high-level conversations about art,” Professor Sullivan says. “We’re going to exist in the world, not just in the classroom.”

It’s this kind of learning environment that uniquely separates Saint Joseph’s from many other institutions of higher education. Through engaging experiential learning opportunities, close faculty mentorships, and the autonomy of independent research or projects, artists and scientists develop critical thinking skills and modes for self-expression. They create communities where they hold one another accountable and develop increased awareness of their career interests as they look towards the future, together.