Tell me your memorable, exciting learning experiences!
November 20, 2009 6:10 PM   Subscribe

What are the most fun, memorable, interesting, exciting, and long-lasting learning experiences you have had?

I'm talking about academic-type learning here, not "life learning", though I realize that sometimes the two are intertwined. I'm interested in things you did that made a subject, era in history, scientific principle, work of literature, or whatever come alive. The opposite of dry, textbook learning and cramming for tests. Engaging, open-ended, low-pressure, and, most of all, deeply memorable - the kind of learning that really gives you a lasting fondness for the subject.

Examples of the kind of thing I mean:
1. When I was 13 I toured the Castle of Edinburgh, and they had a fantastic audio tour that made me fall in love with the dark and mysterious history of the castle - and the whole region.
2. In high school, I took a European History class that put on a Greek Olympics (complete with Greek drama and hand-made masks, home-made Greek food, sporting events, traditional offerings to the Gods), a Welsh Eisteddfod (poetry, daffodils, Welsh music), and a Sienese Palio (with teams, bribing of the judges, sonnets for each mascot, traditional food, Italian art and architecture), and a Victorian Tea (with Oscar Wilde skits, appropriate outfits and food, Gilbert and Sullivan, and appropriate social and political discussions for the era). Totally memorable.
3. As a kid, I had the magnificent Classical Kids tapes, which introduced music history and the greatest works in story-form, with amazingly good quality acting and musicianship.
4. Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" videos, and Lawrence Blair's "Ring of Fire" videos - informative, beautiful, and memorable.

What other things, places, and experiences would you suggest? I'm interested in pretty much anything, but bonus points for things that are possible for me, a not-so-wealthy female graduate student (in the sciences) in Boston, to do without heroic measures. Even more bonus points if friends could participate in said learning.
posted by Cygnet to Education (24 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: When I lived in NYC I went to two different exhibitions at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. They weren't fancy or high-tech, but they were really well presented, interesting, educational and memorable.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has also been a wonderful opportunity to experience theatre in a very raw form in a city that has a great history. Most shows - whether old and established or brand new - are presented in very basic surroundings with minimal props and costumes, letting the text and the performances shine. It is a great opportunity to be exposed to a lot of works, and I have seen some wonderful, remarkable shows in intimate spaces at the Fringe for very little money. And Edinburgh in August is full of street performers and visitors from around the world.
posted by sueinnyc at 6:37 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I taught C programming for 3.5 years. New corporate hires were sent to the tech learning center for a 10 week program that was very intensive and grueling. (It was: learn this and pass the tests or lose your job, for the students)
I did three weeks stand up class work for each group of 20-25 adults (20-25 years old) with another instructor, alternating days. (The students learned other languages and methodologies for the other seven weeks.)
All told I put about 450 people through the class.
When I started, the managers told me that a normal "tour of duty" was 18 to 24 months. I did extra because I volunteered to help while others created a new courseware for the program.
I was completely burned-out by the end, but I learned so much and had a great deal of fun doing it.
I realize that you were looking for the other side of classroom, but it was the experience of a lifetime.
I also realize that you cannot personally duplicate it and it is not a good answer to your question, or a good suggestion. Sorry.

posted by Drasher at 6:44 PM on November 20, 2009

I was flipping through the new Wired last night and read the plug for a Carson MicroBite Microscope. It reminded me of when I got a microscope for a bday present from my aunt. She pricked her finger so we could look at blood cells under a microscope. She's a nurse. Anyway, it was fascinating to see blood at a microscopic level, and I followed that scientific interest through college where I minored in biology.

On the other end of the spectrum, you could also get a telescope. But a micro might be better in Boston. Either way, I don't think it depends on what you pursue, it's how dedicated you are to the pursuit. When you really develop an understanding of almost anything--cooking, writing, music, carpentry, whatever--you end up developing a fondness for it.
posted by tenaciousd at 6:47 PM on November 20, 2009

As far as videos are concerned, I would suggest anything by David Attenborough. I'm a big nature lover and I think his specials are really informative without being dry and boring. The Planet Earth series is especially good for watching in a group.

Also, I would recommend which has really engaging and educational lectures on a wide variety of topics.
posted by Shesthefastest at 6:52 PM on November 20, 2009

Response by poster: tenaciousd - I totally agree that when you develop an understanding of anything, you become fond of it. I'm actually a graduate student in the biological sciences, so I do my share of looking at cells through microscopes, but that is very close to the kind of thing I mean. I've been a vegetarian for ages, and I'm very fond of vegetarian cooking; I lived in a co-op for many years which gave me experience with and an appreciation for serious carpentry, etc. What I'm looking for here are specific extraordinary learning experiences that I might not otherwise think of - I don't need to know about Italian art or Scottish history or cosmology to get by in my everyday life, but learning about those things was fun and interesting, and the knowledge has enriched my life.

Thanks for the answers so far!
posted by Cygnet at 6:54 PM on November 20, 2009

Best answer: Apologies if this is obvious / d'uh, but I'm REALLY enjoying and benefiting from iTunesU these days. It allows me to get a glimpse of all the fascinating subjects I decided not to waste several years on but still wish I had. This seems to at least fit your "not so wealthy grad student" criterion..

[I realise as I think about this question that most of my education is totally based on reading... magazines, Internet, books etc. Something like an exhibition may encourage me to read up about sth new, but ultimately almost all of my knowledge comes from reading. Anyway, I'm interested to read other people's answers]
posted by ClarissaWAM at 7:26 PM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I was 13 and visiting family in Germany, my dad took me on a little day trip visiting the different churches in the area and finding all the gargoyles on them - he explained the meaning of them, and some of the history of architecture - it was really fun, I learned a lot, and I'm still a big fan of history, architecture and gargoyles today. So, read up on gargoyles, and take some friends on a gargoyle hunt. Taking pictures of them is super fun too!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:33 PM on November 20, 2009

Well, it's not academic, but I've been studying/practicing aikido for a long time and it's certainly been "fun, memorable, interesting, exciting, and long-lasting learning experience," not to mention "engaging, open-ended, low-pressure (yes, really) and . . .deeply memorable." I've learned not only a physical/mental discipline but a lot about Japanese culture, and about myself.
posted by Joleta at 7:37 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’ll always remember the following for the learning experience and the wonder and curiosity these experiences evoked:
• Both as a student, and later teaching as a grad student and then as a faculty member-- anything to do with anatomy – looking at a sheep brain, looking at the muscles of an animal or a human (cadaver) to see how things fit together, analyzing the organs. If you want to do this at your school, try to TA the class. Or, volunteer on brain awareness day (take some enthusiastic undergrads along with you) to show brains (sheep or human) to local high school classrooms. Or if you just want to do this for yourself, get a biology catalog and order things (eyeball, brain, etc).it wasn't dry if you were looking at and touching the brain
• Raise a praying mantis (or a whole colony)! This was a lot of fun, and the eggs can also be purchased from biology catalog (they weren’t that expensive). Feed them fruit flies/crickets from other labs in the science building. If you want to share this experience, volunteer at an elementary school and bring some of these eggs to the classroom.
• Looking at live lizards, etc., is really interesting. One of the more interesting things that I had a chance to do was visit the herpetology lab in the biology building (lizards, snakes, and bearded dragons, oh my).
• Local area stuff: If you want history (and literature) to come alive, get yourself to Concord, MA. The homes of numerous authors are there (Emerson, Louis Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne) – they give you a tour of each home and tell you about their lives. You can see things like the mural that Louis Alcott’s sister painted for her – or you hear how Louis Alcott had a crush on Emerson, or see the messages that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to his wife using a ring on the window of his house, etc.
• Local area stuff again (history) – Salem, MA. Go to the house of house of 7 gables – they give you a tour and you see a secret passageway/stairway that was part of the Underground Railroad (there must be more of that out there, I never had a chance to find out more).
• One more thing if you can talk your way into another grad students lab section – I had a chance to get beetles and fix and prepare my own mouse skeleton (and if you find other dead things when you are hiking, you can get some more beetles and make more skeletons). Okay I found them interesting.

posted by Wolfster at 7:58 PM on November 20, 2009

For one of my best masters classes I had to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. We then picked a spot that was our spot in a forest where we spent our class days. Every weekend we were in the same forest over June and July. We would go to our little spot and sit there for about an hour and just observe much like Annie Dillard did although on a much, much smaller scale and time frame.

At first it seemed crazy and that I would be bored after 10 minutes but it was amazing how much there was to observe. The time actually flew by. All my senses came alive. I wasn't just observing with my eyes, but with my nose, and ears and hands. Every weekend was different because everything in the forest was growing in that season. Some days it was hot and sunny and some it was pouring rain. It was always a new experience.
posted by sadtomato at 9:13 PM on November 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

Visiting NASA at Cape Canaveral
posted by madeinitaly at 11:06 PM on November 20, 2009

I took a serious film acting class as a teenager, where I learned how to apprehend and shape my emotions for display. Boy has that come in handy, I'm not a phony person, but very self-actualized. (This is tempered with a nice ironic dose of anxiety, of course! Typical actor!)

> When I was 13 I toured the Castle of Edinburgh, and they had a fantastic audio tour that made me fall in love with the dark and mysterious history of the castle - and the whole region.

I'm one of those people who, if I get high on the ganja, falls in love with something I encounter for the first time. So I've had that very kind of experience many times just from being in an exceptionally keen and impressable state of mind. Ask me about Croation folk art or Stop Making Sense...
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:24 PM on November 20, 2009

When I was in high school back in the early 1970s, we had a teacher who was more like us than he was your typical, straight laced "square" teacher. He wasn't very old (twenties), had long hair (Beatles type), a moustache, talked like us and yes heaven forbid, even wore clothes like ours. Bell bottoms, paisley shirts with wild colours, and even Jesus boots at times. He talked like us as well. Words such as "groovy" and "far out man" were always part of his vocabulary. Anyways, one day we went into his room for his class and found he had a record player set up. That whole class and for a few of the next ones we listened to and dissected the album "Tommy" by the WHO. With the door tightly closed of course. I think if the school board knew what he was teaching us, or should I say HOW he was teaching us, it would not have gone over very well. That was totally against the grain back then. All the students loved his classes but that one class in particular sticks out in my head as being interesting, fun and exiting. And really "hip" too.
posted by Taurid at 12:18 AM on November 21, 2009

1. Dissection taught me how delicate living creatures can be (especially when I saw how easily a scalpel could slice through a brain, which forever instilled in me a wariness and respect for sharp blades). Also, what Wolfster said about anatomy-related things increasing an appreciation for how different components of the body combine to make a living thing work.

2. Had another fun and educational experience in my high school physics class. On the day we were learning about the coriolis effect, my teacher busted out this gigantic wooden contraption made from a super long plank of wood & some kind of nailed-together square frame upon which the plank rotated. We took everything out to the blacktop, balanced the middle of the plank on top of the frame, then placed a large cardboard file box on top of the center of the plank. Then we stood in a circle around the thing to observe the ensuing shenanigans.

Two students at a time could sit on the contraption, each sitting cross-legged on either end of the plank. My teacher gave these volunteers tennis balls, then gave them a little push to start the contraption's rotation. It looked like they were sitting on a really low seesaw turned into a really bare-bones carousel. After the volunteers got used to the rotation (and after they were assured they wouldn't fall off the plank), they had to try to throw the tennis balls into the box. Trying to throw the ball directly at the box wouldn't work - even though the ball still moves in a straight line, the thrower's frame of reference constantly changes so the ball ends up curving away from the box and bouncing off into the circle of observers. We'd giggle, comment jokingly if the thrower was our friend, and hand the balls back to the throwers as the plank rotated serenely on. Eventually, people figured out how to adjust their throws and adapt to the way the rotation threw off their usual perception. Good times.

You don't have to build your own coriolis contraption to check this out, either. If you're near any playgrounds with small carousels, grab a friend (or more!), and go spin around trying to throw things to one another. (Oh, and here's a video of some MIT people on a fancier version of the rotating plank for further illustration.)

3. I really want to mention works of literature I adore but I don't know how people have memorable experiences about books other than reading them. Plays, however, literally do come alive when you see them performed, especially Shakespeare. The experience of being in the same room as the actors on a stage is so, so engaging. Kind of like sitting in the front row, I guess - you're just so much closer to the action that it makes you pay more attention.

In college, as part of an extra credit assignment for my Shakespeare class, I went to see a local theater group that put on a production of Measure for Measure in the basement of a local pizza place. I had already read the play for class and didn't think much of it, so my expectations weren't that high. Didn't matter - it ended up being a pretty awesome production. Words that sounded kind of meh on the page were suddenly turned into these great moments of insight, drama, and "oh, snap." It took me out of my mild apathy for one of Shakespeare's less-renowned works and I had a blast watching the actors maneuver around that tiny basement. I'm guessing, as a grad student, you can get discounts on local/university performances? If the productions are small, tickets probably won't cost much anyway. Seeing a play could be a great experience for you and your pals, and, depending on the source material, a fun way to experience literature in action.
posted by cobwebberies at 2:33 AM on November 21, 2009

SINGLE BEST LEARNING EXPERIENCE OF MY LIFE: Semester At Sea. I boarded a small cruiseliner, SS Universe Explorer with 700 other students and 300 staff and crew. We circumnavigated for 100 days, leaving from Vancouver and arriving in Ft. Lauderdale after experiencing 9 very different ports/countries and the seven seas.
It has been the highlight of my life for the last 12 years and the learning both academic-wise and life-wise is incomparable, plus the relationships that I started there have been as close to any other lifelong friends I've ever had. If you have the opportunity to do it...don't hesitate!
posted by talljamal at 3:56 AM on November 21, 2009

Along the same lines as talljamal, my tour with Up with People changed my life in so many ways. Worldwide tour of performance and community service, 50 young people from everywhere, so much awesome.

I had two lecturers at uni who really stood out in terms of their subjects. They were passionate about their subject, knew what they were talking about, and didn't bog down their subjects with overwrought theory that most other people were using to make themselves smarter than they really are. They are also really personable, helpful, and supportive. Zane Trow (CI Management) and David Fenton (Directing Events & Festivals), THANK YOU.
posted by divabat at 4:51 AM on November 21, 2009

Response by poster: Regarding plays:

I'm totally onboard with the suggestion. I once saw "A Midsummer's Night Dream" in Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare's home turf!) and it was totally awesome - I still remember vividly how one of the forest scenes was illustrated by roses rising through small holes in the stage.

Does anybody have specific recommendations for awesome plays in the Boston area? I already know about Boston Opera and Ballet, and my university has plenty of theater - but what especially awesome production would you recommend?

Wolfster - As a kid I got to assemble a mouse skeleton from an owl pellet, which was totally memorable. So I know what you're talking about! Thanks for the awesome suggestions. I know a place where there are live lizards, and I'll try to check that out. And Concord was a place I visited as a child, and although I was aware of some of the history, I definitely didn't pick up on the cool stuff you're mentioning. And I've never even been to Salem, but I better go soon, because I have been wanting to see an Underground Railroad hiding spot my whole life!!

5_13_23_42_69_666 - What an awesome suggestion, and exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.

Thanks everybody! Keep 'em coming!
posted by Cygnet at 5:02 AM on November 21, 2009

Along the lines of the architecture outing, one of the most memorable classes I took in art school was 'Intro to 3D design'. Not computer-based at all (this was a long time ago), but rather learning about materials and their inherent properties. One of the assignments was seeing what you could build simply by folding pieces of paper, creating structure through triangles. Another was seeing how much material could be removed from a piece of wood and still have it support a given weight. You got to use your hands, plus lots of cool power tools. So maybe something like an introductory architecture or industrial design class? I think some basic exposure to design principles would be useful for anyone.
posted by Bron at 9:01 AM on November 21, 2009

Does anybody have specific recommendations for awesome plays in the Boston area?

The British theatre company Punchdrunk is doing a show at the wonderful A.R.T. called Sleep No More. If I were closer to Boston, I would rush to see this. Punchdrunk shows tend to be really wonderful.

There is a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Boston this weekend that I would likely try to see too if I were there now.

TheaterMania's Boston page and its listings page are good sources of information and listings for Boston shows.
posted by sueinnyc at 9:12 AM on November 21, 2009

sorry about the extra bold type there
posted by sueinnyc at 9:13 AM on November 21, 2009

(I am an American)

First week in Rome ever (first time in Italy ever). Spent with my girlfriend, an architectural historian and staying at The Eden Hotel (with that amazing view from our room and from the restaurant on the top).

Living alone in Bologna, Italy for a month, taking Italian lessons during the week and then taking the train to the major cities, like Milan, Venice, etc.. on the weekends.
posted by Zambrano at 9:18 AM on November 21, 2009

Oh hey, just remembered - you can get to the Adams National Park via the T, and that could be a good gateway to the Revolutionary era/early American history. I haven't been there myself but it looks awesome. You can check out the birthplaces of our 2nd and 6th Presidents, wander around their family house, gape at the 14,000+ volumes in the Stone Library, tour the gardens, all kinds of things. Plus, visiting historical places with period artifacts and architecture is a great way to get a sense of what life was like back then, sort of like time travel with lots of labels on everything.
posted by cobwebberies at 1:16 PM on November 21, 2009

Best answer: Also, when I visited Boston a few years ago, my family and I enjoyed walking on the Freedom Trail and wandering around historical parts of Boston on foot. Self-guided tours are the best because you get to set your own pace and really take the time to examine what intrigues you, be it the architecture or the nuggets of historical trivia or whatever. If you can visit places you've read about in literature or history, that's another great way to make those stories come alive.

Another fun immersion experience: As a young myth and folklore nerd, I had a blast visiting China when I was young because we went to places that were actually mentioned in the stories I had read. Jigong made a tree come out of a well? Here's the well! He made trees move from one part of the country to another? Here are the trees!! Allegedly! It helped that this was all in the middle of a fantastic natural park with mountains and towering forests and staggering beauty. I wasn't even a teenager then, so I guess that helped forge my fondness for nature, cultural history, and bitchin' trees.
posted by cobwebberies at 1:39 PM on November 21, 2009

I was fortunate to go into the Lascaux cave a couple of times when I was a kid, totally blew my mind. Unfortunately, it's no longer pen to the public.
posted by mareli at 4:33 PM on November 21, 2009

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