A.J. Merlino and Rebekah M. Harriger

This article delves into the practical application of experiential learning models in higher education. This approach merges Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory with Project, and Product-Based Learning to establish a comprehensive model where students learn, work, and earn. This approach prepares students for career success and provides income opportunities, making higher education more accessible and relevant to the modern workforce.

The gap between academic learning and the professional world has been a persistent challenge in higher education and has contributed to the decline in Americans’ confidence in higher education. The divide may leave graduates feeling inadequately prepared for their transition into the workforce. Traditional education models have received criticism for overemphasizing theoretical knowledge while neglecting practical skills and real-world applications. However, experiential learning models like Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory, Project, and Product-Based Learning have emerged as potential solutions to the gap between theory and application. These teaching methods emphasize hands-on learning and the practical application of theoretical knowledge, fostering a more holistic and applicable education. At Harrisburg University, for example, the StormPath Career Navigator initiative operates within the Office of Career Services and Experiential Learning. This program integrates these experiential learning models, offering an educational environment where students can learn, work, and earn simultaneously. This makes their academic knowledge both immediately relevant and practically useful. Other educational institutions may also find value in implementing similar programs within their own departments focused on student success, advancement, or pedagogical innovation.


David A. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory proposes that effective learning is a cycle of four interconnected stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. This theory suggests that learners continually convert their experiences into knowledge through this cycle. For instance, a student might start with a hands-on task (concrete experience), reflect on the process and outcome of that task (reflective observation), use those reflections to understand underlying theories or principles (abstract conceptualization), and then apply that understanding to new situations (active experimentation). This cycle fosters a deep understanding of the subject matter and helps students learn how to learn, making them self-sufficient and versatile.

To implement this framework of experiential learning, two pedagogical approaches that operationalize Kolb’s theory in distinct but complementary ways are Project-Based Learning and Product-Based Learning. The former focuses on the journey of learning through the completion of complex and often interdisciplinary projects. This pedagogical approach provides a holistic educational experience that spans a longer timeframe, ranging from weeks to months. The emphasis here is more on the process rather than the end product, nurturing essential skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving. Project-based learning naturally invites ongoing, formative assessments, which evaluate not just the end result but the entire learning journey. A key benefit of this approach is its ability to facilitate the development of interdisciplinary skills and stakeholder engagement, as projects often involve community or external organizations.

In contrast to Project-Based Learning, Product-Based Learning centers primarily on the development of a tangible product or solution. This approach narrows its focus to a shorter timeframe and revolves around the creation of a specific deliverable, such as a research paper, a business plan, or a software application. The assessment criteria here are generally summative, determined by how well the finished product meets predefined standards. What sets Product-Based Learning apart is its power to make academic knowledge immediately applicable, resulting in heightened student engagement and a strong sense of accomplishment and ownership.

For professionals in higher education involved in strategic planning, program development, and stakeholder engagement, understanding the nuanced differences between these two methods can aid in creating an enriching educational environment. It allows for the creation of a curriculum designed not only to impart academic and life skills but also to produce tangible, portfolio-worthy pieces that can significantly aid students in career progression. Importantly, both Project-Based Learning and Product-Based Learning have the potential to engage stakeholders in meaningful ways; projects can attract community partners for collaborative engagement, while products can be market-tested or peer-reviewed for additional real-world relevance. This unique approach integrates Experiential Learning Theory, Project, and Product-Based Learning through a learn, work, and earn ecosystem, requiring all students to complete a predominately paid, hands-on experience from several options (micro-internships, internships, residencies, or apprenticeships) while also involving them in applied projects. This approach offers a unique opportunity to connect academic knowledge with practical experiences while simultaneously earning an income. The implementation of these pedagogies offers a balanced focus on the journey of learning and the tangible end product. Skills like teamwork, critical thinking, and time management are transferable and relevant to both methods, emphasizing the versatility and comprehensive nature of this approach.

For hands-on learning, each option in the program offers a different level of industry exposure. Micro-internships provide paid project work through industry-specific experiences, allowing students to explore the professional world for a short amount of time. Internships offer a more in-depth experience, spanning several months and involving complex tasks working alongside professionals and mentors. Residencies and apprenticeships offer the deepest level of industry exposure, allowing students to work full-time under the guidance of industry professionals for an extended period. These experiences give students valuable insights into real-world scenarios while allowing them to contribute to their field and earn a living wage. In addition to these experiences, all Harrisburg University students participate in applied projects connected with their program of study. This component aligns with Product-Based Pedagogy, encouraging students to produce tangible outcomes. Creating a tangible artifact enables students to apply their theoretical knowledge and skills in a context that mirrors real-world professional settings, enhancing learning outcomes while producing useful content for students’ e-portfolios.

Faculty Mentorship & Seminars

A key factor of the program is the mentorship provided by faculty in each of the required experiences. The mentorship provides students with another path to understand their career pathway. A designated experiential learning hour across the university with each academic program brings students completing their first and second applied projects, internships, seminars, and faculty mentors together to foster collaboration and allow diverse and equitable participation in experiential learning. Students completing their applied projects can leverage faculty expertise during this hour. This hour has also contributed to students providing peer mentorship as students completing their second applied project or internship have provided guidance and feedback to students completing their first project or internship experience. Throughout the program, students are required to complete Experiential Learning Seminar courses to aid skill development, and competency development, and fulfill experiential learning requirements. These courses offer a collaborative platform for students across all programs to hone their professional growth and support success in their academic programs. The seminar courses’ curriculum has been designed to have a career-oriented, competency-based, learning community model throughout their progression to showcase mastery of each competency in their final seminar course. This final course focuses on preparing students to transition from academics to the professional world and requires students to reflect on their overall learning experience at HU, focusing on how their experience will be applied to their professional careers. Students also create an e-portfolio to showcase their experiential learning and competency development. Instructors for the seminars are comprised of staff from student support functional areas such as Student Success and Career Services & Experiential Learning, and faculty across various programs. This diverse instructional team maintains ongoing relationships with students, reinforcing a shared advising model that benefits students across all populations.


This unique approach represents a new way of thinking about higher education.  Primarily, it facilitates a smooth transition from college to career. The continuous cycle of learning, applying, reflecting, and experimenting prepares students for the complexities of their respective industries. The program also equips students with a deeper understanding of their field, going beyond the ‘what’ and teaching them the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of their subject matter. Its multifaceted, experiential learning model does more than bridge the gap between academic learning and the professional world. It also provides a comprehensive, career-focused pathway that equips students with both the soft and hard skills needed for the 21st-century workforce. By offering paid work experience, the program makes it possible for students to sustain themselves financially while they are still in school, thereby eliminating a key barrier to academic achievement for many students. StormPath offers a dynamic educational experience that benefits all involved stakeholders—students, faculty, employers, and the community at large. This comprehensive approach to education is directly aligned with Harrisburg University’s mission to “foster a diverse community of learners, provide access and support to students who want to pursue a career in science and technology, and support business creation and economic development.” When conceiving similar programs, it is important to center operations and outcomes around the mission and vision of the institution.

These initiatives create more than a program; they create an institutional philosophy and culture. This innovative approach to education engages students on multiple fronts, offering a balanced and well-rounded experience that fosters both professional and personal development. Its real-world application and stakeholder engagement make it an ideal model for other institutions looking to adapt and modernize their curricula to meet the needs of the modern workforce. Additionally, the income-generating aspect of the program provides financial stability for students during their academic journey, reducing the financial burden associated with higher education and fostering a sense of professional accountability and work ethic among the students. It allows them to understand the value of work and prepares them for the financial aspects of the professional world.

In a time when many are questioning the value and relevance of higher education, the learn, work, and earn ecosystem created through experiential learning stands as an example of what can be achieved when educators and administrators are willing to rethink and reframe their approach. By offering every student the opportunity to participate in equitable experiential learning opportunities, the program is an answer to the growing call for practical, hands-on education that prepares students for real-world success. It’s an investment in the future…one that pays immediate dividends for students, faculty, and stakeholders alike.

About the Authors 

A.J. Merlino, Associate VP of Student Professional Development & Experiential Learning at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

A.J. Merlino is a five-time GRAMMY-nominated music educator with a passion for cultivating creativity and innovation in higher education. His background in the arts as a performer and large-scale project manager helps inform decisions as a business strategist, bringing a unique perspective to the educational landscape. As a touring musician and clinician, he has presented in Scotland, Croatia, Greece, Thailand, Canada, Australia, and Argentina. Dr. Merlino has worked as a project manager, music director, composer, and performer for many projects held at The Venetian, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, and Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. Dr. Merlino’s experience collaborating with campus leadership and community partners has successfully increased students’ educational programming and learning opportunities while positively impacting student enrollment, matriculation, retention, and outcomes through career-level engagement. Dr. Merlino is currently the Associate Vice President for Student Professional Development & Experiential Learning and Associate Professor of Business & Live Entertainment at Harrisburg University, where he is responsible for expanding experiential learning opportunities and developing new programs that improve students’ positive postgraduate outcomes.

Rebekah M. Harriger, Senior Director of Career Services & Experiential Learning at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

Rebekah Harriger currently serves as the Senior Director of Career Services & Experiential Learning at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. In this role, she leads the management and support of career services and experiential learning programs. Rebekah’s deep-rooted commitment to higher education took root during her time at Shippensburg University, where her involvement in the John L. Grove College of Business Internship Program ignited her aspiration to forge a career path in higher education, focusing specifically on internship program management and career development. Rebekah strives to empower individuals through the cultivation of skills and self-assurance essential for effective participation in experiential learning opportunities. By nurturing these experiential learning opportunities, she hopes these experiential learning opportunities help to create a pathway to STEM careers. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Shippensburg University, complemented by a Master of Arts in Higher Education from Geneva College. Notably, she is a recent graduate of the Society for Experiential Education’s Experiential Education Academy, a distinction reserved for individuals who have significantly advanced and contributed to the field and profession of experiential education. Currently, Rebekah is an active participant in the Society for Experiential Learning Fellows Program, further highlighting her dedication to ongoing professional growth and the advancement of experiential education.

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