Getting Students’ Hands Dirty: The Benefits of Hands-On Learning

The Benefits of Hands-On Learning

While theoretical learning definitely holds its place in schools, hands-on learning allows students not only the opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge but also become agents of change in their community. Many programs are sprouting up across the United States that allow students to learn through this method of practical application. 

As educators, parents of students, or simply those interested in the field, we all recognize the plague of highly theoretical learning with little to no practical experience tethering it to reality. In middle and high school, this takes shape as the all-too-familiar question students frustratedly ask the adults in their life: “when am I going to use this in life?” In college, it manifests as college graduates with a wealth of vocabulary words and memorized math equations but no real workplace experience. It can be very difficult for most students to put into practice their highly theoretical knowledge, much less understand it, if they’ve never done it themselves. 

Think about it. 

Students are taught algebra, physics, and history with no explanation as to why these concepts provide basic foundational knowledge that will help them think critically and analytically for the rest of their lives. So, these students take tests, do homework, make projects believing that the last time they will ever need to know and understand these principles will be on a year-end exam.  

Putting this “hands-on” learning method to the test

Fortunately, there are ways to not only tether these theoretical ideas to a very real reality but also engage the students in hands-on learning. Even more, schools across the country are recognizing the difference this makes in their students’ learning and are adopting these ideals for their classrooms. For example, according to The Center for American Progress’ article, “Redesigning High School: Local Perspectives From Schools and Districts,” over 1,200 students across five boroughs in New York City are engaged in a marine life restoration project. The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School implemented this program in address a community problem: the once thriving oyster population in the Hudson River is now virtually extinct. The student-led project, Billion Oyster Project (BOP) allows students to grow, observe and research oysters’ habitats through internships, volunteer work, and career technical education in a collective effort to restore the oyster population to 1 billion by 2030. The school offers many programs like this, in which students can learn from experts in their field of interest and perform work that incites actual change in their community. It is one of the 200 schools in New York City that utilizes community partnerships, innovation, and hands-on learning to engage its students by solving real-world problems. And these types of schools and programs are on the rise across various industries. 

An article in Inc. details a wealth of organizations across the U.S. that have helped students think like entrepreneurs. These organizations have intentionally chosen a career path that grows and changes every day. “Work has changed, and no matter what career kids ultimately pursue, they’re going to have to constantly adapt and innovate in order to succeed–just like entrepreneurs do. So why not educate them that way?” Organizations like Student Inc. have partnered with Crockett High School, in Austin, Texas, to provide students the opportunity to use their knowledge and talent to make real-world changes. The program invites student teams to compete, “Shark-Tank style, for $2,500 grants” from a local business. In this way, the program provides a lesson where students see use and function outside of the classroom. Instead of learning mathematical concepts such as profit margins and gross profit, they see them unfold through their own innovative ideas. Much like the New Harbor School, it has proven effective; according to the school’s website, “four students garnered $9,000 to develop their ideas. Two of them have built sustainable business ideas and have initiated the paperwork to become LLCs.” 

Another program, Whatever It Takes (WIT) is a nine-month extracurricular program that allows students to create businesses with a social-responsibility focus and compete for money from local investors. The founder intentionally created a platform in which students could exercise leadership within their community. The organization also features hackathons, in which students can propose solutions to problems in their community and pitch them to CEOs, city officials, and leaders. So far, the non-profit partners with schools in San Diego, New York City, and Austin. Investors include Kind, Google, Chase, and much more. These students are given a level of autonomy not often doled out in traditional classroom settings. Instead, these students are provided both foundational lecture-based knowledge coupled with the freedom to apply that knowledge to their passions and interests. Not only is an impactful way to learn but it helps students explore career options as early as fourteen years old. 


These types of experiences and opportunities seem to be working. In 2017, student attendance at New York Harbor School exceeded the city’s average at 91%. The school also boasts improved graduation rates, particularly for their disadvantaged students of color. According to an article published by The Association of American Colleges and Universities titled, “The Power of Experimental Education,” cites a national study that tested the effect of service-based, hands-on learning on cognitive development– much like BOP and Whatever It Takes’ models. Unshockingly, the students with “intensive, highly reflective service-learning courses” showed significant increases in reflective judgment. They also cite another study in which scientists compare two student group’s ability to enact policy. The first group engaged in an internship at the state legislature and the other group merely learned in a classroom setting. Although both students were equally competent at stating facts, the internship group was better equipped to develop effective, realistic strategies for enacting policy. 

And while these numbers speak for themselves, this type of hands-on learning may not be the most feasible for the majority. Many schools don’t have access to programs that can award students thousands of dollars to start a company or sprout 1 billion oysters in a river. However, this doesn’t mean hands-on, experiential learning isn’t possible for students. Washoe County School District published a guide to planning instruction with a focus on solving real-world problems. They posit all students really need is “an activity that requires innovation –the creation of a product, method, or idea new to the student,” and a project and environment in which students can work towards a realistic solution. The solution can be as simple as shifting an assignment from reading a story and taking a quiz to requiring students to read a story and rewrite it from another character’s perspective. 

Students like context. They like to solve puzzles with their hands and create solutions. There are tons of programs like the Billion Oyster Project, Whatever It Takes, and Students, Inc. that empower students to utilize their raw, often untapped, talent to create solutions within their communities right now. It is a priceless lesson with life-changing effects. By allowing students to actively participate in the world they live in, we grant them the ability to see themselves as catalysts for change. And these programs have proven they can, in fact, incite change. Let’s start working with our students to fix the world’s problems instead of simply explaining it to them. Their solutions may surprise us. 

Getting Students’ Hands Dirty: The Benefits of Hands-On Learning

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