Seven Reasons to Seek Out Authentic Learning Experiences

By Alicia Stanton

Two years into his college education, exercise and wellness major Oly Holt had an important conversation with his dad. “What should I do?” he asked. It wasn’t the first time the two had discussed education and career choices, and Holt’s father gave him his usual advice: “Son, if you don’t enjoy it, if you don’t see yourself enjoying it 20 years from now, then it’s not meant for you. Find something that you can enjoy doing.” Holt says the rest of their conversation revolved around his interests, and by the end he realized he wanted to be a physical therapist. With this realization came another—a change in Holt’s perspective on what it means to get an education. Gone was the attitude of “I just want to get in, take my classes, and graduate with a degree and move on.” He says he “began to realize that there’s so much that you can experience, so much that you can learn within the walls of your campus.”

Holt is not alone in his desire to have hands-on learning experiences beyond the typical classroom setting that will prepare him for a satisfying career. Students across campus make their education more authentic—and discover what they really enjoy doing—by working as teaching assistants (TAs), seeking out mentor relationships, participating in internships, and more. In the College of Life Sciences, students have many reasons to get involved in the wide variety of authentic learning experiences the college others.

Reason 1: Combine Your Interests

Girls at Lytle Ranch

Just because students are studying science does not mean they do not have other talents and interests. Finding integrated opportunities helps them see how diverse knowledge and skill sets could work together in a career.

Biology professor Dr. C. Riley Nelson helped create one such active learning experience in the spring term of 2014, when 16 students— including biology, biological science education, and art majors—gathered for an interdisciplinary experience at BYU’s Lytle Ranch Nature Preserve in the Mojave Desert in southwestern Utah. Students received course credit in entomology, art, and technical writing as they collected insects, drew illustrations, and wrote text for a 285-page field guide, Insects of the Mojave Desert: Lytle Ranch Preserve, which was published last year.

The Biology department has similar activities going on this spring and will offer that specific interdisciplinary opportunity again in 2017.

Reason 2: Develop Your Curiosity

Glowing bacteria

Lab classes in the Microbiology and Molecular Biology department give students hands-on experience with lab techniques for studying bacteria, viruses, proteins, and DNA. Many of these classes include opportunities for students to design their own projects.

For example, Dr. Steve Johnson and Dr. Scott Weber include an independent research project as part of the advanced molecular biology lab. Students in their classes have completed projects ranging from studying genetic traits to building a computer database. Dr. Weber says that a big advantage of having a lab class that builds to an independent project is that it lets students develop their curiosity—and it’s fun. “Anything we can do to make learning more real and more fun is the way to go,” he says. “You can forget information you learn, but you don’t forget a passion for learning how to do stuff.”

Senior and molecular biology major Sara Mason, who took the lab from Dr. Weber this winter semester, says working on an independent project made her feel more invested in the learning experience. “Knowing I can plan out a project on my own gives me more liberty to be curious,” she says. “I think it’s exciting.”

Girls preparing food

Reason 3: Learn Marketable Skills

The Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science department has many authentic learning opportunities, from working in the on-campus Pendulum Court Café in the Eyring Science Center to testing the safety and quality of peanut butter in one of the department’s quality-control labs. These kinds of experiences enable students to develop skills that they could eventually use in food industry careers.

Junior food science major Viviana Osbon works as an assistant manager of the BYU Food Science Sensory Laboratory. She says she hopes to have a career in sensory evaluation, the scientific discipline of measuring and analyzing people’s responses to all the sensory aspects of food. Osbon’s time working for the lab (three years so far) is giving her the skills to be successful with that goal. Student employees complete a training program to learn about every part of running a sensory lab, from preparing food samples to writing reports for their food company clients.

Health Science Study Abroad
Dr. Joshua West with three of the forty students. From left to right: Nathan Lambert, Amanda Davis, Dr. Joshua West, and Shad Sommerville.

Reason 4: Expand Your Horizons

Authentic learning opportunities are not just for building résumés. They can also help students gain broader life perspectives and see problems from a different angle. This summer, the Health Science department is sponsoring a study abroad program to Europe, where they hope to do just that.

The three professors and forty students will be staying in Maastricht, Holland; Lund, Sweden; and Siena, Italy—all cities that enjoy very good health outcomes. Students will observe environments that are conducive to healthy and active lifestyles so they can apply that perspective in their careers.

“The idea is to get them immersed in these other cultures,” says Dr. Josh West, who took the lead to make this study abroad happen. “We hope that it makes them more well-rounded public health practitioners.”

Jason Bartholomew (center) helping as a TA for PWS students
Jason Bartholomew (center) helping as a TA for PWS students.

Reason 5: Become a Self-Starter

When it comes to real-world application of the perspectives and knowledge gained from the academic environment, Jason Bartholomew is well qualified. As a student employee of the Plant and Wildlife Sciences department, he has cared for the university’s plants for several semesters. Recently, he took the knowledge he had gained from working with the school’s plants and opened his own oral design company in Provo. He has done many professional arrangements, including lots of wedding bouquets.

Reason 6: Build Relationships

Authentic learning experiences also provide the chance to develop deeper relationships with professors and other students. In the Physiology and Developmental Biology department, anatomy students and TAs say that social interactions are one of the best aspects of the anatomy program. Marc Matsumura says that as an anatomy TA and then as a coordinator overseeing other TAs, he has developed a network of friends and supporters. Working together, “you expand your circle,” he says. “We cheer each other on.”


Sophomore Cody Perry says that the anatomy class has also helped him prepare to build good relationships in the future. Perry, who hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon, says he appreciates how anatomy “forces you to work in groups with other people who are learning.” He says that although group study is sometimes frustrating, it is productive for learning and very helpful for developing the kind of good teamwork habits that surgeons need.

Reason 7: Practice Professionalism

For Holt, too, working with people has been key in his internship as a fitness coach for BYU Student Wellness. “Personal trainers like to focus on clients being happy and not feeling pain,” he says. “I want to put myself in [their] shoes. When I view them as a person . . . it helps.” Bringing a professional attitude to his internship now is helping Holt prepare for his future physical therapy career.


Students in the Exercise Sciences department who want similar professional experience and need an internship to graduate have many options. Internships are available with BYU Strength and Conditioning, Y-Be-Fit, and the wellness program for university faculty, staff, and their spouses. Wellness Coordinator Scott Nelson says this last-mentioned program is one great opportunity for exercise and wellness majors to prepare for a career: “ is program is run and designed exactly like other professional wellness programs out in the workplace,” he explains.

The professional experience that students obtain in these internships cannot be gained in a regular lecture setting. Thanks to the many authentic learning experiences available in the College of Life Sciences, all life sciences students have the opportunity for hands-on practice that will prepare them for success after graduation.