Experiential Learning

Guidelines and Resources

In its 2017 report, UT’s Experiential Learning Faculty Working Group defined experiential learning (EL) as “assignments and activities based on real-life situations or primary research that engages students in reflective problem-solving with multiple potential avenues of inquiry.” As the Cockrell School's Experiential Learning Task Force considered recommendations for how we should manage EL across the school in Fall 2020 in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have focused the majority of our attention on several categories of the many types of EL that are already happening:

1. Course-Based Experiential Learning, Including Capstone Courses

  • Where hands-on activities are “essential” to the learning experience, a dual-mode (hybrid) teaching approach may be used if feasible, considering lab social distancing requirements and overall class size. For example:
    • Collaborative design activities: A combination of in lab and online
    • Collaborative project build/test activities: In lab with appropriate social distancing
  • Where hands-on activities or in-person team collaboration are “not essential” to the learning experience, activities should be performed online.
    • These activities may use simulators or emulators to provide the learning needed.
    • It may be necessary to ship simulator hardware to the student’s location.
  • Due to reduced lab occupancy rates needed to enable social distancing, labs should remain open as late as possible in accordance with the recommendations from the Health and Wellness Taskforce.
    • Priority use of the lab will be given by how close to graduation the students in the course are with highest priority given to students in capstone courses.
    • A lab use reservation system should be used to minimize inconvenience due to the lab reaching its maximum capacity in all lab spaces.
    • Lab monitor(s) should be hired to enforce social distancing requirements (including tailgating prevention) and to perform periodic lab cleaning.
  • If feasible, provide the ability to “check out" equipment for those students who prefer not work in a lab environment or have decided not to return to campus.
    • This would apply where the activity can be performed by an individual versus as a collaborative team.
    • Unfortunately, this likely cannot be done on a large scale due to availability of sufficient equipment.

2. Use of Multi-User Facilities, Such as Texas Inventionworks and the Machine Shop

  • Since space will be more restricted than in the past for multi-user facilities, faculty will need to get pre-approval from the manager of the facility before the semester starts in order to allow their class to use that space.
  • Use of Facilities
    • Reservations: Managers of facilities will set up processes for students to make reservations to use specific pieces of equipment. This will allow for management of density and for ensuring that only students who need to be in the facility are present.
    • Sign-ins: When students enter the facility, they should be required to sign in and to log into and out of any equipment they use.
    • Training: Facilities will create training videos on how to use equipment and require students to watch and pass a quiz before they can reserve the equipment.
    • Plans of Work: Students will need to submit plans for use of equipment or space in advance, so staff are able to set up the equipment before the student comes into the facility. Facilities will offer virtual office hours to support students as they develop these plans, with the goal of reducing the amount of time students spend in the facility itself.
    • Cleaning: Facilities will develop regular cleaning and sanitation procedures, with a particular focus on sanitation of high-touch surfaces between uses.
  • Student-run spaces: Any student-run spaces will be closed until the student organization creates standard operating procedures in line with health and safety guidelines, and those procedures are approved by the building manager who manages the space.
  • Access Priority is as Follows:
    • Students who need lab access in order to complete degree requirements such as capstone or honors research projects should have top priority
    • Students in other courses
    • Paid research students
    • Students pursuing elective research experiences, with students who are closer to graduation taking priority over students who have more time left to finish
    • Student-run clubs and organizations

3. Undergraduate Research

  • Although we are recommending both remote and in-person research experiences in the fall (once allowed by the research restart plan), we believe that some of the excitement students feel when they engage in in-person research and course-embedded EL experiences may be lost in fully remote experiences. Recognizing that there will be fewer in-person research opportunities due to the pandemic, we recommend that faculty researchers across disciplines consider ways of infusing remote research experiences with opportunities for students to engage with the full research experience. Some possibilities include:
    • Invite undergraduate researchers to join lab group meetings virtually to help the students understand the context and importance of the research, so they can understand the broader value of their work
    • Hold Zoom research meetings directly with undergraduate students to give them a chance to participate in small group or individual discussions with faculty and graduate student mentors on the project
    • Use video to provide students with some access, even if virtual, to the experience of being in the lab and seeing those elements of the research that cannot happen remotely
  • As much as possible, we encourage PIs to think creatively about ways of preserving these undergraduate research positions, and we encourage the university to provide the flexibility for PIs to develop solutions that preserve undergraduate research positions while meeting health and safety needs for lab faculty, staff and students. Since students often learn about research opportunities through networking with peers or talking with faculty after classes, and these opportunities will be more limited in the fall, we ask departments to proactively look for ways to set up venues for students to learn about these opportunities. Therefore, we want departments to encourage faculty to post opportunities online, including on Eureka, and to work through academic advisors and career services offices to publicize them to help ensure that students have equitable access to learn about and apply for opportunities.
  • Resources for helping to support remote research experiences (must enroll in Canvas EL Course to access)

4. Co-ops and Internships

  • We recommend that both in-person and remote internship experiences should be permitted in the 2020-21 academic year. For any in-person internship for credit, we recommend that the program or student communicate with the internship site to find out what health and safety precautions are being taken at the site and make sure that these precautions are in line with the recommendations of the UT Health and Safety guidelines. Also, for any in-person internship for credit, the student or program needs to communicate with the site about contingency planning, in the event that the in-person component of the internship must be paused or cancelled for the rest of the semester.
  • Programs and units are encouraged to develop and support remote internship opportunities for students, both as a means of supplementing what may be a reduced number of available in-person opportunities and as a safe alternative to in-person experiences. These remote experiences should be given the same weight and credit as in-person internships
  • Encourage departments and faculty to work with the Engineering Career Assistance Center to find and publicize both in-person and remote Co-op and internship opportunities

Canvas Site for Experiential Learning

For more detailed information of the recommendations of the EL task force as well as for advice and guidelines for implementing EL into your courses in the fall, we have created a canvas site that you can enroll in. The Experiential Learning During COVID-19 Canvas site provides resources related to internships and other forms of community-based EL, undergraduate research and course-based EL across disciplines. The site includes a variety of resources, including:

  • Decision-making questions for how to structure EL during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Health and safety guidelines and templates for various types of EL when offered in-person in the coming year
  • Resources designed to support high-quality remote EL options
  • Resources for structuring and supporting EL, whether remote or in-person
  • Links to other relevant campus resources or policies
  • Reflections on equity in student access to EL opportunities

The site also includes contact information for task force members, who may be available as specific questions or issues arise. Any faculty or staff member may self-enroll in the Canvas site using this link: utexas.instructure.com/enroll/9DFPJ6

For more information or guidance, contact Michael Cullinan, Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor and Chair of the Committee on Experiential Learning, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Committee on Experiential Learning

Greg Zwernemann
Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics

Bob Gilbert
Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering

Jennifer Maynard
Chemical Engineering

Alyson Bodner
Cockrell School of Engineering

Scott Evans
Cockrell School of Engineering

Mark McDermott
Electrical and Computer Engineering

Michael Cullinan (Chair)
Mechanical Engineering

David DiCarlo
Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering