Learning By Doing

Experiential Learning at its Best

At Rowland Hall, field studies begin as early as 3PreK and continue through high school, with trips to theaters, science and art museums, governmental landmarks and offices, and—perhaps most notably—the natural wonders of Utah and the Intermountain West. Students from grades one through eight enjoy a variety of sports experiences for five weeks every winter through the Winter Sports program. Overnight trips, beginning in Middle School, take our students on excursions that include curricular themes, welcome new friends into each grade level, and strengthen the bonds between teachers and students.

Rowmark Ski Academy, athletic teams, debate, the World Language Department, and the service-learning program also take advantage, when appropriate, of statewide, regional, national, and global opportunities for competition, service, or connection to academic studies.

Experiential Learning defined

Experiential learning is the process of learning by doing. Distinct from rote learning (where students are passive in the learning process), experiential learning develops new ways of thinking, persistence, and autonomous learning. Best of all, when students understand the relevance of what they're learning, they're more engaged.

School Trips

Middle School

  • Sixth grade: Weeklong Wasatch adventure filled with paddling, rafting, climbing, and exploring in and around the Wasatch Front with local organizations
  • Seventh Grade: Weeklong adventure with four nights at the Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
  • Eighth Grade: Nearly a week in Washington, DC, exploring the rich experiences of our nation’s capital

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Upper School

To kick off their high school career, ninth graders spend four days at YMCA Camp Roger in the Uinta Mountains for class bonding and interdisciplinary studies, from botany and geology to history and art.

Ninth through eleventh graders enjoy Interim, a weeklong exploratory program unique among Utah schools. Students have the option of participating in a variety of in-town and out-of-town experiences such as film studies and videography, hiking in Moab, and world-language immersion.

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Experiential Learning—Stories from Fine Print Magazine

Photo Gallery: Beyond the Classroom 2023

Beyond the Classroom, an Upper School tradition, is a four-year sequence of experiences designed to take the classroom into the field, expose students to life skills and possible paths, engage in the greater community, and develop leadership skills. In short, it’s an experience that helps Rowland Hall students embrace being community builders.

This year’s event was held September 19 (grades 10–12) and September 19–22 (grade 9), and included the following experiences.

Ninth Grade

Ninth graders traveled to Camp Roger to engage in the natural landscape and laboratory of the Uinta Mountains. Over four days, students enjoyed academic rotations that allowed them to investigate, explore, and observe the wonders of this natural environment, and built community and support for one another.


Tenth Grade

Tenth graders studied world religions through field study and film. In the morning, students visited Holy Trinity Cathedral (Greek Orthodox Christianity), Krishna Temple (ISKCON Hinduism), and Urgyen Samten Ling Gonpa (Tibetan Buddhism), and spoke to religious leaders about their communities, spaces, beliefs, and practices. In the afternoon, students watched and discussed films that follow pilgrims to sacred sites in Mecca and Nigeria.

Eleventh Grade

Eleventh graders worked with fourth graders, who are studying the Great Salt Lake, traveling to visit three sites on the lake: Great Salt Lake State Park, to focus on watershed aspects of the lake and their impact on lake biology and migratory birds; Black Rock, to focus on the physical aspects of the lake, mining interests, and dilemmas facing the shrinking lake; and Saltair, to focus on the area's rich history, politics surrounding Great Salt Lake, and examples of the individual and collective solutions to dilemmas facing the lake. Students then returned to the McCarthey Campus to work on a field guide that can be used by our, and the wider, community.

Twelfth Grade

Seniors worked on their college applications, particularly essays, with Rowland Hall’s college counselors and English teachers.

Experiential Learning

Eighth grade creators of the Pixel Pioneers museum exhibit share their work with visitors.

On June 1 and 2, visitors to Rowland Hall’s Eccles Library on the Lincoln Street Campus were treated to an exciting opportunity to step into Utah’s past.

Around the room, 30 prototypes of museum exhibits, designed by eighth graders, showcased fascinating areas of Utah history, including homages to the state’s extreme sports, performance and public art, inventors, and local activist movements, among other topics. There was even an exhibit that recreated the area around Delicate Arch and one designed in the style of a Navajo hogan.

As visitors made their way around the library, poring over the models, students shared how and why they decided on their ideas, as well as fun tidbits—for example, the group behind an exhibit on the history of the Utah governor’s mansion shared that a Christmas tree sparked a fire in the mansion in 1993, while the group behind Pixel Pioneers, an exhibit dedicated to Utah’s long connection to the tech industry, introduced visitors to the Utah teapot, a 3D test model created in 1975 by University of Utah researcher Martin Newell that’s become a standard reference object in the computer graphics community.

This event was the culmination of a month-long learning opportunity designed by Mary Jo Marker, eighth-grade American studies teacher, and Brady Smith, eighth-grade English teacher, that asked students to think about the role museums play in society, and allowed them to connect with historians from the Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement (CCE), who are currently designing a new state history museum that’s scheduled to open in 2026. The teaching team wanted to give students a chance to pitch their own ideas for museum exhibits to CCE, believing the opportunity would help them think beyond an audience of their teachers and peers, as well as connect their ideas to the larger community through this real-world opportunity.

We wanted them to understand their ideas have value and to think outside the classroom box for their audience.—Mary Jo Marker, eighth-grade American studies teacher

“We wanted them to understand their ideas have value and to think outside the classroom box for their audience,” explained Mary Jo.

To kick off the project in early May, the eighth graders met with Kat Potter, a former Rowland Hall faculty member and a current parent, who is now deputy director of the CCE. Kat partnered with Mary Jo and Brady during the year to design the project, and during her visit she shared with students the need for the museum and what her team is working on, then invited the group to pitch their own exhibit ideas. “Their challenge was to make an engaging, interactive exhibit,” said Mary Jo.

To help the students prepare to take on that challenge, Mary Jo and Brady held in-class discussions about the role of museums and what makes for engaging exhibits, and had students interview community members, including Rowland Hall fourth graders who have been studying Utah history and residents of the Columbus Senior Center, to get their ideas about what would be interesting in a state history museum. The students also had the chance to analyze current exhibits at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and a variety of national museums during their visit to Washington, DC, and to reflect on which exhibits were engaging, which were not, and why. This helped them as they began working on their own exhibit pitches and making decisions about how to engage viewers with the people and events that have shaped the state.

Best of all, the real-world connection to the future museum helped to deepen learning and drive students, who knew they may be contributing ideas that will influence the team of historians. It’s clear the teachers are proud of what the students came up with and how their work may potentially help shape the museum.

School is often fully teacher-facing, but I think having students prepare a big project for the outside world is motivating, and hopefully gives a different perspective.—Brady Smith, eighth-grade English teacher

“We were incredibly happy with how the project went,” said Brady. “We had an excellent turnout from parents, community members, and staff from the Department of Cultural Engagement. The latter gave the kids great feedback and suggested that the projects would impact their thinking about the museum going forward.”

Brady added that he also hoped that this opportunity has helped the eighth graders understand how the past year of studies applies to the bigger world and will inspire them to continue to think of ways they can share their knowledge beyond the classroom.

“School is often fully teacher-facing, but I think having students prepare a big project for the outside world is motivating, and hopefully gives a different perspective,” he said. “I hope they see how everything we’ve done throughout eighth grade has concrete applications to public-facing work.”

Authentic Learning

Rowland Hall second graders drum during the school's Artist in Residence program.

The rhythms of West Africa, created by Tiya Karaus’ second graders, filled the chapel.

It’s a chance to expose students to different art forms and give them opportunities to interact with experts in artistic fields. They get to see the arts in action and start making connections between themselves and the outside world.—Tiya Karaus, second-grade teacher

Some students took turns on dundun drums while others danced, each taking a part in telling a story. The activity was part of the Artist in Residence program at the Lower School, which brings musicians, painters, photographers, dancers, and more onto Rowland Hall’s McCarthey Campus each spring. For Tiya’s class, the artist was dancer and drummer Déja Mitchell, who was instructing the students on the kuku rhythm, a celebratory call-and-response drumbeat that, in Guinea, is used to signal the return of women to the village from a successful fishing outing. Opportunities like these, Rowland Hall teachers agree, are a great way to deepen student learning and connect them to the larger community, which is what makes the Artist in Residence program so special.

“It’s a chance to expose students to different art forms and give them opportunities to interact with experts in artistic fields,” said Tiya. “They get to see the arts in action and start making connections between themselves and the outside world.”

In addition to West African drumming and dancing, this year lower schoolers took part in learning about photography with artist Kirsten Hepburn, and explored modern dance with a performer from Tanner Dance. The arts are an important part of a Rowland Hall education from the earliest stages of learning. Music and visual arts are woven into the curriculum in Beginning School classrooms, and regular music and art classes are part of the weekly schedule in the Lower School. In the middle and upper schools, students are given multiple opportunities to take part in a variety of artistic endeavors. The arts enjoy a place of prominence at the school not only for the joys they bring, but also for the lessons they teach. Music, dance, theatre, painting, and other means of artistic expression give the students windows into experiences that they may not otherwise be privy to, and also provide mirrors to their own experiences and how they connect them to the world. They also are a way of learning that feels natural to children.

Rowland Hall second graders learn from dancer and drummer Déja Mitchell.

“The whole child is a musical child, is a dancing child, is an artistic child,” said McCarthey Campus music teacher Susan Swidnicki. “That’s part of being human.”

Part of the human experience for Tiya’s students also involved learning about the people on the other side of the world who invented the rhythms they played and the dances they performed. Along with the music and dance, Déja shared with the class the history behind the rhythms and dances, and how and why they evolved. “It’s a way for them to connect with another part of the world and get a deeper appreciation of other people and cultures,” she said.

We live in a very noisy world. For children to do that kind of focused concentrating, listening, and responding is really important to their learning.—Susan Swidnicki, music teacher

A deeper cultural competency is just one of the additional benefits Tiya’s students are gaining through the Artist in Residence program. Self-control and cooperation are two other skills they have developed as they played the drums and learned the dances. Every student will tell you the kuku rhythm isn’t just about where you strike the drum, but also how hard you hit it. You have to have the balance. And you have to be listening to what others are playing, and watching the movements the dancers are making, in order for everything to work together.

“We live in a very noisy world. For children to do that kind of focused concentrating, listening, and responding is really important to their learning,” said Susan. “It’s a great lesson in how to get along with others collaboratively and joyfully.”

The students also gain confidence in themselves, not only as artists but as people. After all, drumming is not easy. But if you mention the term “kuku” to them, they do not hesitate to show you. Dozens of hands instantly start drumming on tables.

“It’s a full-body experience for them. It’s hard work when you are little, and you have little hands,” said Tiya. “As one student said, ‘I love this so much, but my hands are so tired.’”


Rowland Hall seventh graders present community engagement solutions to the Great Salt Lake Institute, February 2023.

The Great Salt Lake Institute needed help.

With a mission to connect people to the Great Salt Lake through research and education, the GSLI, as it's known colloquially, works hard to educate Utahns about the famous state landmark. But the GSLI team had recently become concerned that their urgent messages weren’t reaching enough people—especially from a younger audience. 

So in fall 2022, when Rowland Hall’s seventh-grade English teacher, Jill Gerber, and seventh-grade science teacher, Anna Wolfe, approached the GSLI about partnering on a student-led, project-based learning opportunity that would support one of the GSLI’s current challenges, the team jumped at the opportunity.

“Anna and Jill approached me with their idea for a collaborative project and asked about a problem that we as an institute needed help with,” said Carly Biedul, GSLI coordinator and Rowland Hall’s former Lower School science teacher. “We know we need to expand outreach—especially to younger people, as they are the future scientists and changemakers—and knew the seventh graders would offer a new perspective. And since I previously taught many of the students, I know how creative they are.”

Project-Based Learning: A Brief Overview

Jill and Anna’s English-meets-science collaboration is one example of the many exciting project-based learning (PBL) opportunities happening at Rowland Hall this year. While not new in education circles—or at Rowland Hall—PBL has been regaining popularity in recent years because of its proven approach to inspire and motivate learners of all ages.

Through PBL, students are more motivated, and learn more meaningfully, broadly, and deeper than in traditional structures.—Wendell Thomas, director of teaching and learning

“When project-based learning is done well, it incorporates strategies that we know help students learn,” said Wendell Thomas, director of teaching and learning.

Explained simply, the PBL approach is a way to provide student-led, active learning opportunities tied to real-world connections, from expanding the GSLI's reach to researching ways to help communities thrive. The magic of PBL comes from how it engages and transforms students. Unlike assignments that heavily rely on teacher-defined parameters, PBL empowers students to drive their own learning by asking questions and applying their findings, ideas, and observations to the problem, scenario, or task at hand.

Wendell explained that high-quality PBL supports students developmentally, as proven by self-determination theory—the idea that, thanks to humans’ inherently curious nature, we pursue learning and development opportunities when our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met. In other words, when we’re allowed to engage in self-guided learning, seek out and master challenges, and establish close emotional bonds and secure attachments with others—all of which are elements of high-quality PBL—we want to continue to learn.

“Through PBL, students are more motivated, and learn more meaningfully, broadly, and deeper than in traditional structures,” said Wendell.

Creating a High-Quality PBL Experience

Anna and Jill knew that creating a high-quality PBL experience for their students would require a solid foundation: a partnership with a community member who had a genuine need. Though they knew their students wouldn’t be engaged in the project until after winter break, Jill and Anna set out to identify their partner early in the school year, seeking one, in Jill’s words, “whose work would be relevant to students and would have social value, and who, as a person, is relatable to the students.” They saw Carly, and the GSLI, as that partner. With Carly’s knowledge of the school and her connection to Great Salt Lake, they knew the partnership would offer an ideal way for students to make an impact on a local, and familiar, issue.

Jill and Anna prepared for the project by building knowledge that the students would need, including an understanding of abiotic and biotic interactions within ecosystems, as well as research and presentation skills. They further explored what lake advocacy looks like by joining FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake for a day program that helped build students’ familiarity with and connections to Great Salt Lake.

In addition to identifying a community partner, Jill and Anna prepared for the project by building knowledge that the students would need, including an understanding of abiotic and biotic interactions within ecosystems so they would understand the fragility of Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem and have a common language, as well as research and presentation skills, including design thinking, decision filters, and the components of quality research. They further explored what lake advocacy looks like by joining FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake for a day program at the lake, which also helped to build students’ familiarity with and connections to Great Salt Lake. “We thought that would help them feel a sense of urgency and connectedness to this problem,” said Anna.

By late January, the teachers were ready to introduce the students to the project, and brought Carly to campus to share information about the GSLI as well as to present the institute’s problem, which was simplified to a question that would guide the students’ work over the following three weeks: How do we broaden our reach to new audiences so our community understands and prioritizes the local impact of the Great Salt Lake? The students were then able to ask clarifying questions that would help guide their work.

Looking back, the teachers remember the seventh graders seemed understandably nervous about the PBL task. “I think they were intimidated by a big, open-ended question, which is so different for them,” said Anna. Many students initially questioned why the GSLI would give seventh graders this assignment—if adults couldn’t find a solution, how could they? Student Will W. remembered that he believed the group could take on the task, but still felt concerned about its many unknowns. “I felt a sense of honor because they trusted me, and I knew that my peers and I were ready to complete this task,” he explained, “but I was a little concerned about who I would be working with and how they would contribute. Then, I was concerned about what the guidelines would be and what we were and weren't allowed to do. Finally, I was concerned that I would have to really be a creative and thoughtful student, and I would have to really think hard about it.” Students’ early concerns were understandable—and natural.

“Like most real-world problems, this project was challenging and uncomfortable,” said Jill, but she and Anna were prepared to coach the seventh graders, especially during the earliest stages of the project, while they built their confidence. Through protocols designed to clarify the GSLI’s problem and craft solution hypotheses, each group, assigned by the teachers, created an initial research plan, then leaned on the skills and knowledge they had been building to identify the solutions they thought would best help the GSLI meet its goal. They also identified a target audience for each solution, then started the research phase, a step that included conducting their own original field research in Salt Lake's 9th and 9th neighborhood in early February. Through it all, the teachers provided opportunities to check in.

Rowland Hall seventh graders conduct field research in Salt Lake's 9th and 9th neighborhood.

Students ask residents questions about the Great Salt Lake during the field research phase.

“Every day there were goals that we were hitting,” said Anna, “and at the end of each week, students had a ‘share-out,’ or summary presentation, to give.” This not only broke the work into more bite-sized pieces, but also got students comfortable with presenting. “My teachers had us do weekly share-outs about what our group was doing. During that time they would give us feedback,” said Vivi K. “That was a great way to gain confidence.” Jill and Anna further built kids’ confidence by bringing in two guest speakers who talked to them about crafting field market questions, including how to ask unbiased questions, and professional presentation skills.

Additionally, the teachers continuously reminded the students about their very real capabilities—the reason, they said, that Carly enthusiastically agreed to partner with them. They reminded the students that, as members of one of the age groups that the institute wants to reach, they already knew what engages kids their age and inspires them to act. Their perspectives were assets. Instead of thinking of themselves as unqualified because they were students, Jill and Anna encouraged them to think of themselves as competent business consultants who were supporting a problem that desperately needs attention.

“At the end, it clicked that they knew more about their topic than the institute, so they were the experts,” Anna said. “I think that was a cool feeling for all of them.”

The Impact of PBL

On February 15 and 16, the days of their presentations, the seventh graders swapped their Rowland Hall tees and sweatshirts for dressier duds, then loaded onto a bus that would take them to the Westminster College campus, home of the GSLI.

“You could definitely feel the nerves,” Anna remembered. “Putting their professional dress on and going to the location made it more real; presenting outside school added authenticity.” Student Tori S. agreed, saying her pre-presentation nerves were the most challenging part of the assignment for her. “When we were on the bus on our way to Westminster to present I was so nervous,” she remembered. Around her, students were practicing their presentations, sitting quietly, or taking in last-minute advice. “My teachers helped me build my confidence by talking to me,” said Mina B. “Ms. Gerber gave me a pep talk about public speaking and how I shouldn't be scared.”

After arriving at Westminster, the seventh graders made their way to the business school auditorium. As they took their seats, Jill and Anna reminded the group how the morning would run, noting that Carly and Cora would sit in the front row, where they would take notes on each recommendation, then ask follow-up questions.

Seventh-grade presenters at Utah's Westminster College, where they presented to the Great Salt Lake Institute.

One group on the auditorium stage after the conclusion of their presentations.

As each group took the stage, it soon became clear how much time and thought the students had put into their solutions for the GSLI. Ideas were proposed for community members as young as eight to those in their 40s, and for groups from students to families to even skiers and snowboarders. Solutions varied too: many groups touted the benefits of expanding the GSLI’s social media presence, showing examples of how TikTok engages younger audiences or how nonprofit organizations connect to followers on Instagram and Facebook. One group recommended museum exhibits and educational kits to spread information about the lake; others highlighted community events, murals, posters, and stickers. As each presentation wrapped, a calm seemed to settle over the room. Those who had presented felt confident in their work, while those still waiting realized how prepared they were. “After seeing other groups present, I started to calm down,” Tori remembered. “In the end, presenting wasn't even that scary."

We were beyond impressed. I had high expectations and they exceeded them. I took copious notes the whole time and learned so much.—Carly Biedul, GSLI coordinator

Anna recognized how the setting of the college auditorium—alongside factors such as working toward a deadline and presenting to a real client—solidified the students’ view of themselves as knowledge experts. “They realized that role way more than if they had done it in my classroom,” she said. Vivi, for one, had a strong experience that confirmed that role when she saw Carly taking a picture of one of her slides. “I was proud because she was actually going to use some part of our idea,” she said.

In the audience, Carly felt like a sponge as she soaked up the ideas that would help her team reach more people. She was surprised by the extensive research the seventh graders had done, and appreciated how they included examples from similar organizations. “We were beyond impressed,” she said. “I had high expectations and they exceeded them. I took copious notes the whole time and learned so much.”

And thanks to the PBL approach, the students knew the excitement of the day would last long after their presentations were finished, as some of their recommendations would go on to be put into action by the GSLI—and that they may be a part of that work too.

“I told the presenting groups I will need their help in the future, and plan to reach out as we implement their ideas,” said Carly, who said she is working to apply multiple student ideas at the GSLI. “It was pretty clear we need a better social media presence, so we will be expanding that soon. We are looking into a TikTok, as that seems to be where many young people get their news and information from. We were also inspired to have more events in the future, perhaps maybe a trivia night that one group alluded to.”

For Jill and Anna, watching the students blossom and receive validation for their innovative solutions supported their decision to devote substantial time to this new collaborative community partnership. “Jill and I were so blown away and so proud of them,” said Anna. “I think it was definitely the most unique moment of my teaching so far, to see students actually be business consultants and give meaningful solutions to a problem. It was really cool to see these kids go through the struggle and all of the emotion, but then to come out on the other side with actual information someone will use.”

Students recognized the benefits of the experience too. When asked to reflect on what they learned about themselves, they listed a wonderful mix of academic and professional skills, including leadership, motivation, time management, critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, communication, creativity, public speaking, and how to apply research and analyses to a real-world project.

I felt honored and privileged that the GSLI gave seventh graders the opportunity to help solve Utah's greatest environmental problem.—Seventh grader Will W.

“I learned that I can do hard things, I can push myself to my limits and succeed,” shared Mina, who believes this opportunity helped her overcome a fear of public speaking and showcased her leadership abilities. “I am most proud that I stood out as a leader and led my group to a successful presentation. I overcame fears and ended up having a great time.”

The students also recognized the satisfaction that comes with contributing to real-world solutions. “I felt honored and privileged that the GSLI gave seventh graders the opportunity to help solve Utah's greatest environmental problem,” said Will. It’s a perspective that the teachers hope will keep the group motivated as they continue their educational journeys. 

“They learned a ton about themselves,” Anna remarked, “and who knows how this experience will impact their future moving forward?”

It’s a reflection that’s also true for the GSLI—and will doubtlessly be true of other organizations who engage with Rowland Hall students in PBL projects that serve as opportunities to both strengthen our shared community and shape tomorrow’s leaders.

Authentic Learning

You Belong at Rowland Hall