Experiential learning at the heart of Discovery

When McMaster students Pawan Aulakh and Jackie Brown joined the Discovery Program they thought they would be helping to teach others. What they didn’t anticipate was how profoundly the program would impact their own learning.

The McMaster Discovery Program offers free, non-credit, university-style courses to Hamilton residents who have missed out on the chance for a post-secondary education because of economic, social, medical or other barriers.

Jean Wilson, the director of McMaster’s Arts & Science program and founder of the Discovery Program, envisioned the program as a meaningful way to engage in the Hamilton community while providing a unique experiential learning opportunity for McMaster students.

“I wanted to give undergraduate students the opportunity to experience a new type of learning that extends way beyond the classroom, puts them in a new environment and asks them to take on a very different role as students. I wanted them to experience a situation where everyone is a learner,” says Wilson.

Those enrolled in the Discovery Program attend a weekly session taught by a McMaster instructor and receive additional aid from a student support team made up of Arts & Science students, students like Pawan and Jackie.

Students enrolled in the McMaster Discovery Program course "Plagues and People of Hamilton" pose with members of the student support team,  as well as McMaster staff and faculty.

Students enrolled in the McMaster Discovery Program course "Plagues and People of Hamilton" pose with members of the student support team, as well as McMaster staff and faculty.

Pawan says from the beginning, her experiences with the program were eye-opening.

“On our first day, everybody talked a little bit about themselves and why we were there. As I listened to the students tell their stories, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I have not lived at all. These people have such great life experiences.’ I realized I had been living in a University bubble.”

The Discovery Program’s inaugural session, Voicing Hamilton, was taught by Daniel Coleman, professor of English and cultural studies, and focused on telling the stories of Hamilton residents through texts, history, poetry and visual arts. The most recent course, Plagues and People of Hamilton, instructed by professor of anthropology, Ann Herring, examined the impact of epidemics on the Hamilton area.

Both sessions tapped into themes and experiences that Hamilton residents could relate to, but were unfamiliar to the members of the student support team. Jackie says designing the course in this way created a “democratic” learning environment and as a result the instructor, the students and the student support team all became learners.

Jackie, Pawan and the other members of the student support team brought their skills as University students to the process, assisting students in a number of ways from brainstorming project ideas to helping to structure papers and access library resources.

Both Pawan and Jackie say this reciprocal experience was inspiring and gave them a new appreciation for what it means to be a life-long learner.

“I was struck by the fact that every student in the course was so passionate about being there,” adds Jackie.  “It was just so amazing to see that people would take time out of their schedules, they would travel from across the city, they would try to find baby-sitters for their kids or do whatever they could to make it to the course every single week. Just seeing the impact that the course had on the students changed my whole conception about where learning should take place and showed me the value of life-long learning.”

Both Jackie and Pawan say their experiences with the Discovery Program were unlike anything they have experienced in a classroom setting. In fact, they and other former members of the student support team continue to be involved informally with the program, a testament to its lasting impact.

The Discovery Program will be offered again this fall, allowing a new crop of McMaster students the opportunity to experience this unique form of learning. Jean Wilson says ideally, she would like to see the program expanded to give more Hamilton residents and McMaster students access to this transformational experience.

“This kind of learning adds another dimension to undergraduate education. Participants recognize that growth takes place, not only in the classroom, but in many different venues; and that students can learn from many different people, not just their instructors. When students are given the opportunity to experience this, it opens their minds and creates the capacity for continued growth, enriching their time at McMaster and beyond.”