New freshmen at the University of Missouri-Rolla are about to find out what experiential learning means — before they even get to their first classes.
Each August, UMR welcomes its freshman class to campus early with Opening Week, an orientation program that involves, among other things, remote-controlled vehicles and obstacle courses. This year, Opening Week activities will take place Aug. 11-18. The fall semester officially starts Aug. 20.
UMR will set a campus record this year with more than 1,030 new freshmen.
“We looked at what our students want,” says Patty Frisbee, UMR’s director of New Student Programs. “We looked at our design teams and used that as our experiential model.”
Student design teams at UMR build things like solar cars, human-powered vehicles and concrete canoes. Incoming freshman work on slightly less challenging projects during Opening Week, but the same principles apply.
“They want hands-on experiences,” Frisbee says. “They want to have fun in their learning and work as part of a team. We give them a taste of what this campus is like and what their classrooms will be like.”
The design competition during Opening Week is called Project X. This year, teams of freshmen will equip mini-baja vehicles with accessories that, hopefully, will enable them to navigate sand and water hazards. The teams will also create launching devices that are capable of catapulting projectiles through a water hoop.
In addition to the remote-controlled vehicles, teams are provided with cardboard, Lincoln Logs, popsicle sticks, tape, springs, plastic spoons and rubber bands.
The new students have already been assigned to teams. Each team has about 18 members. The freshmen will work on their design projects at appointed times during the week in anticipation of the Project X race through campus. The competition starts at 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 17.
“By mid-week, you can see the walls breaking down,” Frisbee says. “By Friday, they’ve made best friends. We want them to build confidence and let them know they’re going to be okay here.”
In addition to Project X, Opening Week at UMR features social activities, academic workshops and an introduction to places of interest in Rolla.
Most of the week’s activities are planned and supervised by student leaders who work under the direction of Frisbee. A total of 70 upperclassmen are trained to mentor new students during Opening Week and to help them make successful transitions to UMR.
Faculty members also volunteer to eat lunch with students and to talk with them about classroom expectations and campus traditions.
Academic workshops begin on Monday and continue throughout the week in conjunction with other activities. The workshops give freshmen practical classroom and laboratory experience before the semester officially starts. Some of the students take advanced placement exams during Opening Week. An incoming freshman might test out of trigonometry, for example, and qualify to go straight to calculus.
According to Frisbee, UMR’s Opening Week schedule for freshman is unique. “We’re not copying others,” she says. “This is a model for other universities.”
Participation is not mandatory during Opening Week, but Frisbee says about 85 percent of the freshmen take advantage of daily activities.