When the parks, recreation and tourism management (PRTM) department re-evaluated its sophomore curriculum, it was clear the time had come to spice things up. What developed was a learning experience the students and professors would never forget.
In lieu of taking traditional classes in traditional classrooms at traditional times, students took part in PRTM EDGE, an immersion program consisting of a semester of field trips, organized events, meetings with area professionals, oral and written tests, multiple presentations, collaboration on real-world problems and much more.
Four professors each took about 30 students and kicked off the semester with a three-day field trip to PRTM-related facilities around the Southeast, such as state parks, professional sports arenas, resorts, hospitals and golf courses. This helped to set the tone for the program, allowing the students to get a preview of what the semester held for them.
“When I first found out about the immersion semester, I didn’t know what to expect,” says Tayler Easton, a PRTM EDGE student. “We were told to leave 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. open every day for classes. I knew my day would consist only of PRTM-related activities, but I didn’t know much more than that. After the trip, I knew I made the right choice for my career; seeing how much of an impact the recreation field has on everyone’s life sold me on PRTM.”
The freedom from schedules and the ability to set up real-world experiences are a few of the advantages of the way the program is set up according to PRTM professor Denise Anderson. “Without the constraints of set class times,” she says, “we were allowed to think outside the box with field trips, field work, volunteering, guest speakers, etc. The real world — particularly in PRTM — is rarely made of set schedules for much of what we do. I think the uncertainty provided a realistic learning environment. It was definitely liberating once we got the hang of it.”
Alex Dorsam transferred into the PRTM program just before the immersion program began. “After about the first month of the program, I realized I’d definitely made the right decision in terms of changing majors,” he says. “We were forced out of our comfort zones every single day by trying new things and thinking on our feet. We saw the inner-workings of recreation/leisure organizations that we never would have anywhere else.”
What began as an uncertain and frightening semester resulted in unprecedented interaction between students and professors. Anderson comments, “There’s no doubt that I know more about my students — both academically and personally — from this new way of teaching. They felt more willing to share information, and I think they also learned more about me.”
Easton adds, “Denise is so much more than a professor to me. Whether we’re e-mailing back and forth about classes or if I’m just stopping by her office to get some candy and talk about life, I know I always have someone to go to.”
“I most certainly think Denise has an understanding of my strengths and weaknesses,” agrees Dorsam. “In fact, I don’t believe there’s another person on this campus — student or faculty — who understands my capabilities as a student and a person better than Denise.”
According to the PRTM professors, this in-depth knowledge about their students is handy when it’s time to help students identify the internship opportunities that are best suited to their individual skill sets. It’s also helpful when writing letters of recommendation for jobs and graduate school programs.
Anderson says PRTM EDGE students have an advantage over other internship seekers. “I know that some of my students actually ‘beat out’ others when they applied for internships because of their experience. Employers are impressed with the skills our students acquire.”
PRTM EDGE student Jennie Cumbie says she used her experience in the program almost every day in her internship with a wedding planner. “When I applied for internships,” she says, “I explained what the immersion program offered, and the interviewers looked at my degree with a whole new level of respect.”
The PRTM faculty and students definitely took on a challenging experiment with PRTM EDGE, but support from the Clemson Family ensured the ongoing success of the program. According to Anderson, it took the cooperation of almost every part of the family to make it all work. “Our PRTM staff was phenomenal (as always) in helping us navigate the system with regard to class schedules, classroom space and communication with the students,” she says. “Alumni in the field were willing and excited to be guest speakers, participate in our student conference and facilitate our field trips. Administrators, in particular, were and continue to be incredibly supportive with funding opportunities that support student learning.”
Other departments on campus have even contributed to the effort. “Numerous departments are either partnering with us to enhance the program or picking our brains to implement something similar,” says Anderson. “This semester, students from the communication studies department will join us. ‘Communication Coaches’ will integrate into the program to help PRTM students improve their communication skills. And we definitely won’t stop there — the plan is to collaborate with groups across campus the way we have with our colleagues in the field.”
The future of PRTM EDGE looks bright, and the students who have already participated have fond memories of their experiences. Dorsam comments, “I’ll always look back on this semester and be grateful. There’s a lot to be said about the way this shapes students that traditional learning cannot.”
Easton adds, “If I could have every class taught this way, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I feel I got the most hands-on experience in my field that I could ever ask for.”