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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Is this school hard?

I’ve given a fair number of student tours in the past year and a half or so. After hearing about our experiential learning philosophy and the classes our students take – Backcountry Skiing & Winter Ecology, Environmental Perspectives & Whitewater Rafting, Rock Climbing & Geology, Dance & Improvisation – Common questions, usually from parents are: is this school academically rigorous or when do you study??

Having been at PC for a while, these questions are reminders for me to put myself in the shoes of someone outside of this small educational community. To most people’s mainstream educational experience (my Midwestern Public school experience included) Prescott College’s way of learning must seem slightly odd, intriguingly adventuresome, or utterly rational. Why of course we study! This school IS rigorous!! For me, and many of my fellow students, PC is and has been a pretty darn challenging experience – for handfuls and handfuls of reasons.

As a transfer student, I am fortunate to have an academic experience to compare with Prescott College. For perspective, at my last school (a university with 20,000+ students) a challenge was:
-sitting through a 2 ½ hour lecture with 40 other students, in a room too large for our professor’s delicate voice, about events leading up to the Irish Rebellion of 1919: Midterm next week, 3 essay questions and 40 multiple choice.
-vying for time against 30 other students for help on math homework from our T.A., before being forced to leave the math lab for another class to come in.
-learning about Environmental Science in a windowless classroom on the 8th floor in the downtown of a big city.
-Sitting in the front at each class, answering questions and discussing, only to find out that my professor (and advisor!) still doesn’t know my name at the end of the semester.
-Deciding what classes to take with no advising past the first semester, then signing up for them in an electronic rat-race.

What makes Prescott College challenging?
-Self-Direction is emphasized. While there are great advisors to encourage you, tons of classes and classmates to inspire you, and a library full of knowledge to beckon you – it all comes down to the fact that your experience is what YOU make of it.
-Most students spend a minimum of 13 ½ hours in classes each week… that’s not including outside field trips, or time spent on homework. A normal course load is 3 classes during the semester. Many students have jobs as well. A semester at PC is time management 101.
-During Block, most students are in class, all day, every day, for a month straight. For example, after an 8-hour day of rafting down the Green River in Utah, we set up camp, unload gear, do our daily chores, then sit down under a giant cottonwood to write a natural history journal, daily river/rapid log, answer study questions on geology of Desolation Canyon, then circle up after dinner to discuss readings, share ecological observations, and debrief the day.
-All courses have an academic component – even if the class is primarily skill building, such as Introduction to Rock Climbing. This generally takes the form of readings, reflection writing, discussion, group work, presentation sharing, essay writing, and portfolio-keeping. A Writing Emphasis class will have you writing short essays weekly, and include one or two longer, peer-reviewed research papers.
-Creating an independent study – from the ground up, all based on what you want to learn, an activity, internship, or other experience, and putting it into an academic context.
-All students will apply knowledge and skills learned throughout their time at PC and incorporate them into a Senior Project of their own making.

Basically, the way we do things here are a little different than the mainstream. We think that education should be experiential – that the best way to learn is by doing. This brings on inherently different challenges than one would find at a more mainstream academic setting – but nonetheless rigorous! Many say we’re the Harvard of the West!

<.....One of our geology "classrooms"

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