Daniel Alexandrov on why projects are important for students’ development
In the 2019/2020 school year, 13 projects were organized by Sociology in Education and Science Laboratory staff and associates, in which 133 students took part. We cannot emphasize enough that Lab is both scientific and educational, so including students in scientific work is a important focus for us.
Daniel Alexandrov, head of the Laboratory, shares his experience and draws examples of scientific research that proves the importance of projects for students.
«It is really important to engage students in project activities. Our laboratory was working on that from the very beginning, even before it was created if we take our first expeditions into account. The reason why projects and expeditions are important to me is very simple and personal. I like working with students and teach the younger years, going on expeditions with people new to them, watch them find their way in new surroundings, how it affects them, how it makes them happy. I feel happy along with them, it brings me energy and a new fascination with my science. But besides my subjective feeling, there is a more objective, science-based reason.
The Gallup company conducted a study of American college graduates. A famous Gallop alumni survey showed that long-term success at work doesn’t depend on grades or an honors diploma. The most important was the presence of the following six experiences in one’s student life, the «Big Six», as the authors of the study call them:
1. a professor who made them excited about learning
2. professors who cared about them as a person
3. a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams
4. worked on a long-term project
5. had a job or internship where they applied what they were learning
6. were extremely involved in extra-curricular activities
The six experiences can be divided into two groups: the first three are about professors’ support, the last three - about positive experiences of adult life.
It is important for students to understand that the work they will perform later on, creating real things instead of just passing exams, is never organized the same way as studies in their university. In a university, students take on multiple courses, studying all of them at the same time, not putting all their effort into each one. Many learn the material only to forget it right after passing their exams. At work everything is completely different - you get one task, one project, and to successfully finish it you have to work on it consistently and exclusively for a long time, definitely longer than one semester. A lifestyle of an A student who can prepare for exams is completely useless in such «adult life».
Project activities prepare students exactly for such life: one has to work on a project for 1-2 years, cooperating with other people, taking responsibility, dividing tasks between each other, resolving conflicts. This helps immensely with preparation for future work. Surely, one has to have the knowledge and skills necessary to do the job as well. One can’t become an analyst without learning about data analysis and learning it well. But taking people that do have the necessary skills and understand how to do the task, the most successful of them will be those that can do long-term work and do it together with other people.
Our laboratory ensures that the projects are long-term, no less than a year, with some projects going even longer.
A mentor Professor
And the other important factor that was mentioned. The most useful experience in a university is a professor that knows you and inspires you, a mentor that can help you. But let’s be real: where or how could a student find a professor to bond with to a level of a trusting relationship? Such that this professor would think of them not only when they write to them or press the red button on them and could write them a recommendation letter or help in some other way. Clearly, when a student and a professor only meet in the auditorium and go their separate ways right after the seminar ends, such a student is only one of 30 people for this professor. There is no contact. When a student and a professor work on something together, however, when they share experiences in the shared time and place, the situation is different. Expeditions are great in this sense, they create an environment for forming trusting relationships. Everyone works together from dawn to dusk: senior and junior colleagues, students, students and professors back to back in the same field, doing similar work. Inevitably, it leads to forming good relationships. Project activities work the same way, maybe less intensively, but on a long-term scale.
Seeing a mentor in action makes trust more sustainable. Stanford, one of the best universities in the world, came up with the following practice: each professor is given a number of students that would come to this professor from time to time to talk about important things. This solution is good, but not good enough, as conversations will never have the same effect as shared activities. For example, students that take part in an expedition see me at work, they see what I do and why, they understand what questions they can or want to ask. And they will trust not my professor status, but me personally because they saw me in action and confirmed that I am worthy of their trust. At the same time, I also see students in action, I get to know them better. That is why common activities are especially valuable.
Social capital and weak ties
The role of projects and mentors can also be understood through the concept of social capital and strong and weak ties. Strong ties are often formed between people that are alike. So, such people’s advice would be similar to what you yourself would come up with. Weak ties can give a new perspective, set aflame with a new emotion, or uncover a new motivation. So, an older fellow who is a relative or a close friend, or who hangs around similar people, would have a smaller effect on one’s successful career in the future than an older fellow met on a project. Students of different years work together on the same projects, so people can learn something entirely new for them from the professors or older or younger student colleagues, and this is very helpful.
Projects are very important for students’ development, more important than many other things in the university. They exist to allow students to apply their skills, try them in practice, as well as to find fellows and mentors among senior colleagues. Pick projects that are interesting for you, participate in different projects, challenge yourself, and build relationships with different people».