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A Brief History on Learn by Doing

In support of a bill before the California state legislature to establish a polytechnic school in San Luis Obispo, Tribune journalist Myron Angel wrote that he hoped the school would “teach the hand as well as the head so that no young man or woman will be set off in the world to earn their living as poorly equipped as was I when I landed in San Francisco in 1849.” Angel was instrumental in the creation of Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing motto, proposing in a 1898 San Luis Obispo Breeze editorial that “[w]ithout a thought of disloyalty to the great universities, may it not be … better to divide the patronage, divert some of the endowments and taxes and … [make] a place in the country … for the ‘practical application’ of the arts and sciences … a truly polytechnic school.” A residential campus from the beginning, the school, known as “the Poly,” was established as a Learn by Doing institution under the guidance of its first director, Leroy Anderson. Cal Poly evolved to become the “comprehensive polytechnic” that it is today, but the Learn by Doing philosophy remains at the core of what it does.

Learn by Doing at Cal Poly involves aspects of both “experiential learning” and “discovery learning,” which are sometimes treated as distinct forms of learning. Experiential learning is a process in which students actively learn from the experience of testing hypotheses and assumptions. In experiential learning faculty members set out clear activities with defined learning objectives that students need to achieve. Discovery learning involves a faculty member setting a solvable but challenging problem for a student and allowing him or her to discover the solution. The role of the faculty member in discovery learning is to facilitate discovery, though this can take many forms. For example, the faculty member may provide very little background and simply set out the problem to be solved. Alternatively, the faculty member can provide a strong foundation upon which students construct a solution to the problem.

Cal Poly has always been innovative in its Learn by Doing initiatives. For example, Julian McPhee, who before being president of Cal Poly was chief of the State Bureau of Agricultural Education, wrote a report in the late 1920s in which he indicated that a Cal Poly education should consist of three main components: classroom instruction and application of learning, supervised enterprise projects and participation in Future Farmers of America (“FFA”). On the basis of the report, President Benjamin Crandall introduced enterprise projects to Cal Poly. During his tenure as President, Julian McPhee said of the enterprise projects that they were “the single most important function of the school.”

The enterprise projects had two main goals — they were supposed to be educational and commercially viable. Students were expected to earn money from their projects, which they could in turn use to pay for school expenses. The enterprise projects later became senior projects. Senior “theses” were first required in 1941-42 from all four-year Bachelor of Science students. The senior thesis was renamed the “senior project” in 1953.

In 1968, President Robert Kennedy said of the senior project:

“If each senior project achieved what it was intended to achieve, it would require a student to be creative, innovative, accurate, factual and to solve a problem for which there was no known solution. In other words, it is not quite like a list of problems that the instructor gives you and which he can correct your solutions by turning to the answer book.

And when you are out on a job with IBM, US Steel, or any other firm, nobody will give you a problem for which they can turn to the back of the book and find the answer. They give you problems for which there are no known answers. And the senior project is the closest thing that we can come to for duplicating that type of real life situation. The student learns to find the problem and solve it.”

Under President Baker’s leadership, applications to attend the university grew, rankings in national publications such as “America’s Best Colleges” and U.S. News and World Report were consistently among the highest and the university became more than a polytechnic university. It became a comprehensive polytechnic university. President Baker’s appreciation for the STEM disciplines and the arts set the tone for the faculty to create a curriculum that not only prepares its students for careers, but also, as he remarked, provides students with the tools they need to “make decisions, recognize needs, exercise leadership, communicate effectively, and develop a sensitivity to the human condition in our physical, sociological, and spiritual environment.”

Today, Cal Poly is among the most selective public universities in the United States. Under President Armstrong’s leadership, Cal Poly’s national reputation is growing and, according to payscale.com, the return on investment for graduating students is consistently on a par with some of the most prestigious universities in California. The initial draft strategic plan, which President Armstrong’s leadership team based on the simple idea that Learn by Doing is at the core of every success at Cal Poly, includes some innovative ideas to enhance and expand Learn by Doing. For example, the draft strategic plan proposes that Cal Poly grow internships and study abroad opportunities, increase student faculty research activities and explore year round operations to provide students with more access to classes taught by Cal Poly’s exceptional faculty. Our challenge for the future is to determine the next step in our Learn by Doing evolution, and then implement it.

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