By Allie Davidson, Educational Technology Development Coordinator, and Tamara Vaughan, Educational Technology Development Coordinator

In a 2011 interview, one of the founders of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series, R.A. Montgomery, had this to say about experiential learning:  “Experiential learning is the most powerful way for kids, or for anyone, to learn something. It’s not lecturing, it’s experiential, hands-on learning.” (Hendrix, G., 2014).

Taking a page out of Montgomery’s book, Rebecca Dolgoy, an instructor in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton, designed a Choose Your Own Adventure final assignment for her capstone course that provided her students with an engaging and exciting experiential learning opportunity.

In the course, titled Object Affinity, students worked closely with the Canadian Museum of Nature to explore themes such as ethics, museology, curatorship, human narratives and knowledge mobilization. The final assignment in the course gave students the chance to apply their knowledge and experiences from their degree to a real-world challenge. The challenge: create a Choose Your Own Adventure story designed to guide visitors through the museum, connecting objects in different galleries and prompting readers to engage critically and reflectively with the museum’s collection.

We were lucky enough to attend the “dress rehearsal” for the stories. During the last class, Rebecca invited a few colleagues to meet the class at the museum to try out the stories and provide feedback to the authors. The students were then expected to incorporate the feedback to improve the booklets for their final submission and compose a final reflection on the experience and course overall (a key pedagogical piece that closed the experiential learning cycle). Additionally, for those who were interested in taking their work beyond the class boundaries, after revising their booklets, they had the opportunity to present their stories as an activity for the April Nature Nocturne event at the museum.

We thought we would share a little bit about our experiences and observations of the fabulous evening because we had so much fun and thought this was a brilliant example of experiential learning!

The event started out with welcomes and introductions from Rebecca and the students. They described the purpose and goals of the evening and introduced each Choose Your Own Adventure story.  Next, it was time to release us into the museum to discover the stories and objects within them.

For the next hour and a half, using the booklets as guides, we explored the museum, deciding at each page-turn what direction we would follow. The stories guided us to imagine swimming in the ocean with Tallulah the blue whale, starting a fire with copper-nickel ore in the Earth gallery, following a moose’s advice to climb a mountain to sub-zero temperatures, discovering Inuit stories to learn about the Arctic, and walking the shores of a river to visit with Canadian geese.

We thoroughly enjoyed the experience and can testify that the aim of the students’ stories were accomplished: they prompted us to reflect and think critically about the experience and challenged us to interrogate the objects in ways that we had never considered. Carys, one of the youngest participants (a 9 year old), experienced a complete transformation in her perception of some of the “objects” on display at the museum.  Prior to the exercise, the animals in the polar exhibit were just part of the display. After participating in the night’s events, however, Carys began asking questions about how those animals became part of the museum, why did we need to take animals out of their habitats for our personal use? The inanimate became animate: the object became a living creature once again.

Beyond our own learning experiences, what we found even more impressive was what we observed in the students – they took ownership over their projects, the course and the experience. The students relished the opportunity to speak with participants about the adventure whilst also infusing the conversation with their own thoughtful reflections and burning questions they had for their audience. Students helped one another and helped their instructor smooth out some of the bumps associated with any opening night. From an outsider’s perspective, the buy-in we observed in these students was spectacular and the learning journey they participated in was an undeniably rich and meaningful.