Are You Experienced?

Two men
Leo Li and Prof. Francisco Estrada with a soccer-playing robot.

Laurie Stephens

When students apply their learning, amazing things happen.

We’ve all heard of the young job-seeker's catch-22: You need experience to get work, but you can’t get experience without the work.

For decades, UTSC has been on the case. The university offers dozens of Co-op programs that help graduates break the seemingly vicious cycle. And Co-op is just one approach. Other forms of what we call experiential education can also show employers that a new grad has applicable, hands-on knowledge.

By participating in experiential education, students connect with the world outside the university, discover the career possibilities their education will afford them, and even get a leg up on the competition. But it’s not just about work. Applying your class work to a real-life situation deepens the learning.

Here are just a few examples of how UTSC students bring their learning to life.

Here’s a Computer Science course for those who love soccer, think robots are cool, and have never lost their fond- ness for Lego. In CSC C85—Embedded Systems, students build tiny, soccer- playing Lego robots, and pit them against each other in an actual match.

The course came about when Associate Professor Francisco Estrada was asked to evaluate an existing course on microprocessors. He suggested, instead, a course on embedded systems. Basically, this means anything with a processor that is designed for a specific purpose, from a smart watch to an airliner.

“Robots are a prime example of embedded systems,” says Estrada. “The course contains a good amount of material on robotics. And what could be more fun, as a project to bring all the course material together, than robots playing soccer?”

For 12 weeks, about 60 students work in teams to build the robots, using a variety of tools, including standard Lego robot kits. Then, they put their tiny robots to the test in an actual competition on a miniature soccer pitch.

Estrada says his goal is to give students practical experience in developing software, and help them find work in the ever-expanding embedded-devices market or carry out further study or research in this field.

“Students have to deal with frustration caused by their robots not behaving as they are expected to, have to come up with creative and practical solutions to unexpected events, and spend a  good amount of sleepless time working on this project,” he says. “But without fail,” he adds, “each year after the competition I have students come to me and say that it was awesome, and well worth the work.”

Leo Li is a fourth-year Specialist in Computer Science, Software Engineering Stream. He describes CSC C85 as the most challenging course at UTSC—and the most rewarding.

“To successfully build a soccer-playing robot, we had to find and piece together relevant information and knowledge either gained through each other, the instructors, or research,” he says. “I think these skills are quite difficult to teach within a classroom, which is why I value this course.”

How do you make research come alive for students? Connect it to real people who are living the experience.

That’s Assistant Professor Michelle Silver’s goal in HLT C22— Health, Aging and the Life. This year, her students worked in groups to research issues in aging, then presented their findings to about 50 seniors who had just finished an exercise class at the nearby Malvern Family Resource Centre.

Silver says the entire experience— the presentations and the conversa- tion that followed—was a unique learning opportunity for both students and seniors.

“The discussions afforded the students a chance to hear the seniors’ perspectives on topics they had been focused on during the term,” she says. “Several students who participated mentioned how it opened their eyes to future jobs that would involve working with older adults.”

Kim Vuong, a third-year student in Health Studies Co-op, worked on a project about the benefits of physical exercise in reducing older adults’ risk of Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression and anxiety.

From her course materials and volunteer experience at a long-term care facility, she knew that seniors age at different rates and in different ways. But she says the site visit to Malvern was a revelation.

“I was surprised to see that the seniors were very active and engaged in various forms of exercise, including aerobics and Zumba,” she says.

Vuong is now applying the knowledge she gained in the course to her volunteer work at the long-term care facility, and is considering careers in which she can continue to work with seniors. In her current job, as a pension assistant, Vuong says she has “a unique opportunity to assist older adults with pension inquiries.”

When Steve Song began his full-time Management Co-op placement at the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, he expected to learn what it was like to be a public servant in finance and accounting.

What he didn’t expect: to influence how the Ministry prepares its annual budget.

“When preparing for the Ministry’s annual compensation forecasting worksheet, I identified a way to improve a formula to save the government budget $125, 000,” says Song, a fourth-year Management Co-op student who will graduate in December “This may not be a big number in the government budget, but I felt that I was actually contributing to the province that I live in.”

Co-op is a game-changer for UTSC’s Management students, says Christine Arsenault, managing director of the Department of Management.

“Our students apply what they have learned in class, and they also pickup valuable business skills that help to launch their careers,” she says. “Their work can have huge benefits for employers, and most of our Co-op students receive full-time job offers prior to graduation.”

Song’s duties included helping to prepare budgets and forecasts, conducting financial analysis, helping to improve financial and business processes and producing reports, spreadsheets and financial documents.

His experience let him gain a comprehensive understanding of public-sector financial management— one that can help him find future employment.

“All I had heard about government is that it was ‘boring’ and ‘old school,’” he says. “But after I actually worked in a ministry, I found that all those rumours were just rumours. People in my branch were smart. They cared about my experience and provided me with great help.”

It isn’t often that a university student gets to assist Canadian diplomats in humanitarian efforts overseas.

But Luula Hassan’s Co-op placement allowed her to do just that.

The third-year student travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to lend support to the Mission of Canada, Humanitarian Affairs, just as the refugee crisis was emerging in spots around the world.

Her work involved researching and analyzing emerging international humanitarian issues, preparing diplomatic reports for briefings and being part of delegations representing Canada at meetings of international organizations.

“My placement at the Canadian Mission came at a time when migration was receiving great international attention,” says Hassan, who is majoring in Public Policy and Health Policy. “I attended a number of interesting meetings at the UN on the humanitarian situations in various countries such as Syria, Burundi and Yemen.

“I was able to learn and understand the structure of not only the Canadian government but various international and multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Organization for Migration.”

Roger Francis, Director of the Arts and Science Co-op program at UTSC, says Hassan’s experience illustrates why co-op programs in post-secondary education are so valuable.

“The Co-op model presents a recipe that supports the academic interests of the learner, while lending to a highly marketable skills base,” he says. “It brings an enriched context to the classroom as students return from work term with industry perspective that allows for advanced sharing and learning with their fellow students.”

From Hassan’s perspective, the placement was a chance to gain experience in an area of study and work that is hard for undergraduates to access. She says she gained exposure to the work of the Canadian government in humanitarian affairs, and also, by consistently contributing to diplomatic reports, the chance to strengthen her writing skills.

Connecting a student’s scholarly knowledge to practical application in a community environment—this is the foundation of Kamini Persaud’s course, CTL B03—Introduction to Service Learning.

Sameeha Zaynab says her placement at YouthLink’s Pathways to Education program in Scarborough Village allowed her “to be an effective tutor, using my skills in writing, reading and comprehension in English and social sciences.”

YouthLink serves a multicultural community of high school students at various academic levels, and Zaynab says her placement there allowed her to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

In the course (offered through the UTSC Service Learning and Outreach program, Centre for Teaching and Learning) students are placed in a community setting. There, they must apply the concepts and approaches they’ve been taught in the classroom.

“They must then reflect on how their scholarly knowledge has contributed to their performance,” says Persaud, “and also on how that service experience informs their academic understanding.” She says it is “this reciprocal learning, and student reflection on this reciprocal learning, that separates service learning from other forms of experiential learning.”

Persaud’s course has two components: in-class and placement.

The in-class portion introduces students to the educational approach of service learning and to concepts and key skills they’ll need to learn from their placement experiences.

Placements can be either “in- reach” or “out-reach.” 

In-reach placements involve students returning to a course they have successfully completed, and working with the instructor to enrich the learning of currently enrolled students. Out-reach placements allow students to take concepts they’ve learned in the classroom and bring them to community organizations. They study the current needs of the communities, and the effectiveness of approaches that are being used to meet those needs.

“Students serve as academic role models and are exposed to the real needs of their communities,” says Persaud. “As they use their scholastic knowledge to help others, their area of study becomes more relevant to them and their motivation to learn is revitalized.”