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KEY travel returns; enhances classroom learning experience

Aug 13, 2021
group photo in front of a Queen Anne mansion
group photo in front of a Queen Anne mansion

KOKOMO, Ind. – For a brief moment, Savannah Pigman held a hummingbird in her hand.

“I got to feel its itty bitty heartbeat going so fast,” she said, almost not able to believe it had happened. “It stayed in my hand for just a moment, and then it flew off. It was so cool to feel its life, so up close.”

The experience was part of one of the first Indiana University Kokomo KEY travel experiences since the COVID-19 pandemic began — and many more are planned during the 2021-2022 academic year.

Pigman, who graduates in December, was excited to see birding in person at the Hummingbird Migration Celebration at the Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary in Connersville. An ornithology class with Lina Rifai, associate professor of vertebrate biology, piqued her interest in birds.

“You get first-hand experience. I’m a hands-on learner,” Pigman said. “You can write something down, you can read something, but being there and seeing it applied adds that extra step, to engrave it in my mind, and show me how it works. I really enjoy that.”

Travel has been a hallmark of the Kokomo Experience and You (KEY) program since it was founded in 2016, with the goal of providing students with real-world experiences, connecting them with people, and having a travel experience within their major. Since that time, hundreds of students have participated in study-related trips to places including sites significant to World War II in Germany, France, and England; an equine therapy facility in Cicero, Google headquarters in California, ESPN in North Carolina, behind-the-scenes in security and hospitality at Disney Resorts in Florida, and much more.

Mark Canada, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and interim deputy chancellor, said faculty adapted to provide virtual KEY experiences last year, but it wasn’t the same as being in person.

“We are thrilled to be taking the KEY back on the road,” he said. “This year, we are looking forward to many educational, fun KEY experiences, including trips to Chicago, Nashville, Yellowstone National Park, and many sites in Indiana.”

Cynthia Williams, a student in the Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling program, participated in the first KEY trip of the school year, visiting The Lume: Van Gogh at Newfields.

“I love Van Gogh, so I was pretty excited to go see it,” she said, adding that she’s learned in her classes about mental health struggles the impressionist painter faced.

“It was interesting to view his work with that knowledge, and pick up on it,” she said.

She hopes to go on other KEY trips while earning her graduate degree.

“It’s important for us to meet new people,” she said. “It changes your perspective when you look at different things, and go to places you’ve never been.”

Rifai, who led the hummingbird migration trip, typically hosts four or five KEY trips each year, with past destinations including the Indiana Raptor Center in Nashville, and netting and banding saw-whet owls at the Indiana Dunes.

“When we take students somewhere else, they interact with us more,” she said. “Students will ask me more questions in one day than all semester long. There’s more learning going on. They’re seeing things first-hand, and not in a video, or with pictures. That was the main thing I missed last year in our classes.”

The travel time also gave time to talk, and she learned more about students’ interests, which helped her make suggestions for internship opportunities that would be a good fit.

“I’ve missed that opportunity to get to know the students,” she said. “They were always glad to go, even though they had assignments that they normally would have complained about in class. They’re more motivated to do them when there is a trip involved.”

Learn more about the KEY program, and upcoming trips, at IU Kokomo KEY.

Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.

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