CEDAR CITY — A few years into its efforts to define itself as the premier undergraduate institution for project-based higher education, Southern Utah University is getting noticed.
On Monday, the 7,000-student school nestled in the heart of Cedar City will mark five years since implementing its university-wide experiential education program, which requires students to design and implement a project that puts what they're learning into practice.
The initiative is known as "Edge" — education designed to give experience — and so far the reviews are positive.
"It is unique in the country. It is certainly unique in Utah," SUU President Scott Wyatt said. "Higher ed has not done a great job throughout the whole country at preparing students for the unscripted questions in life. … We're reinventing general education."
The project-based Edge program has been nominated for the National Society of Experiential Education's 2015 outstanding program award, which honors one program nationally for accomplishing goals and implementing best practices. The project requirement may be one of a kind, making SUU a leader in educational evolution that will continue to grow, administrators say.
Dave Buhler, Utah Commissioner of Higher Education, applauded SUU for its efforts as avant-garde educational models are considered around the country.
"Universities and colleges across the nation have experiential learning programs — hands-on, evidence-based learning that shows demonstrated student outcomes," Buhler said. "Clearly, student engagement helps with retention and completion of students towards their college degree. It is noteworthy that SUU is making it a central part of every student's experience."
With regard to other public institutions in the state, Buhler said, "There's certainly been noticeable expansion of experiential learning in its various forms at all of Utah's public colleges and universities. These efforts are being implemented in ways that best fit the distinctive missions and programming of each institution."
Edge is one of SUU's goals to bring students to the school, give them an innovative and comprehensive education, and build up the school's graduation rates, Wyatt said.
For the educators who guide the program day-to-day, SUU hopes to steer students beyond memorization and lecture-based learning into deliberate and practical self-discovery, developing skills and curiosity that will benefit them throughout their lives.
"How often does this happen in college? People just to school and kind of get batted around from one thing to another, and maybe luck into finding a class and a passion, maybe pick the right major at the right time, but things just happen to them accidentally," said Todd Petersen, an English professor who has also taken on the title "director of project-based learning."
In the five years since Edge's inception, SUU students have completed a wide array of practical projects: starting a small business, building houses in Central America, self-publishing a novel, raising bees for honey, and finding an affordable way to build a piece of lab equipment the school didn't have in its budget.
As senior Kelsie Rutledge returns to class Monday, she will be wrapping up her Edge project, an internship with the Iron County Youth Volunteer Corps where she designed and promoted service efforts to learn about event planning.
Rutledge, 22, spent her summer coordinating volunteer trips, leading fundraising efforts and building a social media strategy for the organization. The internship was one of several different projects she considered, ranging from volunteering with local youth sporting programs to an international service trip.
"Honestly, if I didn't need the Edge project (to graduate), I probably wouldn't have done this just because I wouldn't have been looking for something," she said. "But now that I'm almost at the end of my project … I'm really grateful that I did. It's given me more experience than I ever would have thought."
With each new school year, Petersen knows he must once again sell the peculiar graduation requirement to skeptical incoming students and their parents.
"Not everybody is 100 percent ready to step out of a very controlled education environment like K-12 and come into an environment where we're saying, 'You need to make some choices,'" he said.
Rutledge said she and her parents were among the doubters.
"My parents were very confused about it," Rutledge said, chuckling as she recalls sharing some of her initial project ideas with her family. "I explained to them, (SUU) is not making me do this. This is my choice. You can do almost anything for your Edge project. … You can customize the project to whatever you need."
It's not until they're more than halfway through the process that students are won over by the project-based approach, Petersen said. While an estimated 85 percent of students report at the end that they're glad they did the project and feel they benefited from it, the remaining minority feels the program was better suited for other students or that it ultimately didn't benefit them.
Overall, the Edge element doesn't add to the required credit load and doesn't extend the expected completion time, Petersen said, but replaces an interdisciplinary requirement the school has since eliminated. It spreads out across the student's entire time in college, through a five-step process and three, one-hour courses requiring students to explore and design project ideas, commit to their project, complete it, and then reflect on it in a final course.
While SUU's project-based emphasis at the general education level is uncommon, Petersen sees it as movement that will spread across the state and the nation. Over the summer SUU hosted a national conference on its campus with other schools looking to implement or expand an experiential curriculum element, and he has heard of programs being considered at other public Utah universities.
"The thing that higher education needs to do nationally to kind of regain its relevance is to think more deeply about these kinds of projects and this kind of engaged learning," Petersen said. "It would be nice to be able to preserve traditions, but the world is changing too quickly and we have to make sure that students are ready to operate in this really fluid and changing world."
Among the greatest gains, and the biggest wants, that outgoing Edge students are reporting in focus groups is a chance to learn "soft skills" such as interpersonal interactions, goal-setting, project planning, responsibility and leadership.
"If I was a student looking for a university, knowing how complex the world is becoming and how rapidly it's changing, I would want to go to a university that is willing to dramatically change the way in which it teaches and the way in which students learn," Wyatt said. "This is one example of how we're willing to take some risks ourselves and spend a few years in the trenches, paving the way for a whole new way of learning."
Additionally, students are having great success applying for jobs and finding plenty to talk about in interviews with potential employers, Petersen said.
After a summer with the volunteer corps, Rutledge lists increased confidence and communication skills among the benefits she is taking into her senior year and beyond graduation.
"College should push you and get you to explore outside your comfort zone, and that's what this Edge project really does," she said. "You could just go through your classes and graduate and that's it. … But this kind of helps push you into the real world and get you prepared before you graduate, and I'm really grateful for that."