Saving a "lost" summer: Reinventing experiential learning at Brown

The pandemic robbed many students of their summer internships and research opportunities. With the SPRINT program, the University created hundreds of new opportunities — and a new way to offer learning beyond the classroom.

Summers may provide a break from the classroom, but for Brown students, it's an opportunity to gain invaluable experience through internships. In 2020, Alexa De La Fuente '23 was supposed to spend her summer at the Texas Center for the Environment. Jake Ruggiero '22 was eagerly awaiting to start his field research at Michigan State University.

And then...the pandemic happened. In the span of a few weeks, students across the globe saw not only those life-changing internships disappear, but also traditional part-time jobs.

"It was virtually impossible to get an online job as a college student," recalls De La Fuente. "Jobs at grocery stores were equally hard to get since everyone was applying to them. Retail stores, where I usually work during the summer, were closed."

To the University, one thing was abundantly clear: they needed to drastically rethink summer programming. And fast.

A new approach to experiential learning during a pandemic

The Summer/Semester Projects for Research, Internships, and Teaching Awards program — aptly called SPRINT for short — was born from that necessity. These awards provided funding for short-term internship, research, and teaching projects that would be carried out remotely. The program removed many of the criteria for traditional internships, offering more flexibility for students searching for experiential learning opportunities and supporting a greater number of students overall.

"In the pre-COVID world, there were stricter rules and criteria for these programs," says Besenia Rodriguez '00, deputy dean of the college for curriculum and co-curriculum. "There were minimum hours, on-site requirements, etc. We had created those programs with those structures for a face-to-face world. But we don't live in a face-to-face world right now, and those structures became a hindrance for our students."

Thanks to the University's rapid rethinking and the support of donors to the BrownTogether campaign who allocate their giving to the BrownConnect program to support internships and research opportunities, nearly 500 students received funding through a SPRINT award last summer — working in areas ranging from climate change to the justice system to machine learning to the arts. Most of these opportunities were external internships, research projects, and community partnerships. In addition, the President's Advisory Council on Internships focused on creating the successful BrownConnect Summer Institute for additional access to learning and mentorship opportunities.

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awarded under the SPRINT program during summer 2020


faculty collaborations

awarded during summer 2020


community partnerships

awarded during summer 2020

With SPRINT, a new type of learning experience was added. More than 200 SPRINT awards supported projects in which students collaborated with faculty to adapt and redesign their courses for hybrid or remote learning.

"There's a culture of faculty and students as partners at Brown," says Rodriguez. "Brown has a rich tradition of peer advising and teaching. It made it really easy for faculty to envision working with students on developing their teaching."

The students who helped make fall courses possible

Instead of a "lost" summer, both Ruggiero and De La Fuente received SPRINT awards and spent the summer helping reimagine courses for the fall alongside faculty.

Jake Ruggiero '22, SPRINT award recipient
Jake Ruggiero '22, SPRINT award recipient

A Brown-RISD Dual Degree Program student, Ruggiero was able to blend both the artistic and scientific sides of his education in his SPRINT. He and several other students partnered with a faculty member to transition the lab component of a chemistry course so that it could be conducted virtually. For his part, Ruggiero produced animated shorts that helped explain lab procedures that would substitute for the in-person labs.

"This experience showed me how both my study of biology at Brown and my study of illustration at RISD are centered around the dissemination of information," says Ruggiero. "Having a basis in the arts supports the way we approach the sciences, and it definitely played a role in the way I approached video projects this summer."

Where Ruggiero was able to bring his artistic skills to his collaboration, De La Fuente's contribution to her SPRINT project was more personal. She partnered with a professor to modify the first-year seminar The Border / La Frontera — a class she had taken herself and the experience that led her to concentrate in ethnic studies and education.

While she initially hoped to research labor issues on the U.S.-Mexico border, she shifted her focus to create a module for the class on multiculturalism on the border after witnessing the anti-racism protests of last summer. This fall and spring, she was a co-instructor for the class and taught her module to first-year students.

"I shared stories of my childhood dealing with colorism in the Latinx community and the challenges I have faced accepting certain identities," she says. "Having just one module on this topic was not going to cover everything, but my goal was to make first-years challenge their views on race and ethnicity and relate past events to present day discourse."

"These collaborations were a success on two fronts," says Rodriguez. "It gave our students valuable experience outside the classroom and financial support during an economic crisis, but it also helped us make a stronger curriculum during a pandemic. Our fall semester would have looked a lot different if not for the work of our students."

Having just one module on this topic was not going to cover everything, but my goal was to make first-years challenge their views on race and ethnicity and relate past events to present day discourse.

Alexa De La Fuente '23 SPRINT award recipient
Alexa De La Fuenta posing on the Providence pedestrian bridge

A chance to improve learning beyond the classroom

The success of the SPRINT award program further prompted the University to rethink its definition of experiential learning, but also illuminated another critical area: equity and access.

"When we ask students and recent alumni about their most impactful learning experiences, they share stories of active engagement — helping to create, share, and apply knowledge in partnerships with peers, faculty, and community partners," says Dean of the College Rashid Zia '01. "The SPRINT framework helps to ensure that these high impact opportunities are visible and accessible to all students."

The first step: make it easier for students to navigate the process. Earlier this year, the University centralized its application process for all College-funded experiential learning opportunities. Students can now find and apply for BrownConnect Linking Internship and Knowledge (LINKs), Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards (UTRAs), and other awards all in one place under the SPRINT umbrella. 

The next step: improve equity by changing the funding structure. To that end, the University did away with fixed funding amounts in favor of providing funds based on students' demonstrated financial need. This more holistic applicant review process helps prioritize the highest-needs students, many of whom had previously never pursued these opportunities because they couldn't afford it. 

"Experiential learning is an integral, indispensable part of a Brown education,” says Zia. "In 2020, the Brown community stepped forward to reimagine experiential learning for students in response to the pandemic. In 2021, we are working to make permanent the best of these changes to help ensure a more equitable and accessible process for years to come."

Support experiential learning at Brown.

A part of the Brown Annual Fund, the BrownConnect Fund provides undergraduates with summer internship and research opportunities, as well as financial support, to pursue their academic and professional goals while solving real-world problems.