Applied Learning, Professional Benefits

Garner real-world experience in the classroom

April 26, 2021 | By GTPE Communications
Working professionals who are blending theory with practice

If you’re looking to hit the ground running in the real world, pure theory isn’t going to cut it. That’s why Georgia Tech’s Professional Master’s (PM) and online Master of Science (OMS) degrees take a hands-on approach that applies today’s classwork to tomorrow’s workday.

Broadly known as “applied learning,” the term refers to a variety of educational principles and practices that pair theory with practical application, including service-learning, internships and practicums. The principle of blending theory with practice weaves its way through the emergence of modern learning theory. In essence, studies show that we acquire information better when our brains can form associations, and when experience reinforces knowledge.

Georgia Tech currently offers five programs featuring applied learning methodology: OMS degrees in Analytics and Cybersecurity, as well as PMs in Applied Systems Engineering, Manufacturing Leadership and Occupational Safety and Health. Each course offers one of two different applied learning approaches: A team-based capstone project, in which a solution to a real-world problem is presented to industry sponsors, or an applied learning practicum, a real-world experience through the learner’s company or pre-selected projects.

Both approaches provide practical experience and immediate benefits, both to individual learners and the companies that employ them. In fact, the professional development benefits mean that organizations are often eager to see their employees complete certification.

That was the case for NASA digital transformation program manager Doug Trent. He credits Georgia Tech’s OMS Analytics program not just with opening the door to a career with NASA, but for preparing him with the skills to excel there.

“I used what I had learned to work hard for them,” he said, “and I guess they liked what they saw.”

Trent ascribes his success to the practicum portion of his degree. Each of GTPE’s professional master’s and online master of science degrees feature a capstone or applied learning practicum as part of the curriculum. In Trent’s case, the practicum came in the form of a NASA internship. Eight months prior to completing his OMS Analytics degree, Trent converted that internship into a job with NASA.

According to Joel Sokol, director of the interdisciplinary Master of Science in Analytics degree, this approach is vital for ensuring a seamless entry into the world of industry.

“With students who are working full-time already, we try to focus almost all of our content on things that will be useful to them professionally,” Sokol explains. “We want students to be able to go out and use what they learned and be very successful in a real-world environment.”

Courses may begin with discussions about models and concepts, but they quickly transition to real-world scenarios. While the early coursework of theories and diagrams may challenge the learner, the on-the-job application of those theories brings it all home.

Capstone project serve as a way to demonstrate that real-world expertise to potential employers -- and its not just the learners who benefit. During the program’s design phase, surveyed partner companies stressed the need for graduates with real-world experience. As such, GTPE’s applied learning programs feed experienced workers directly into industry.

“The people that we attract to our course have 5-10 years of experience already,” says Gary O’Neill, capstone instructor for the PM in Applied Systems Engineering (PMASE) program. “They’re here because they want to do better in their chosen field.”

PMASE students have worked on capstone projects with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Georgia Aquarium, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and NASA – and the feedback speaks volumes for applied learning.

“The general response from our partner companies is, ‘I’m blown away by what you did in such a short amount of time,’” says O’Neill.

GTPE’s applied learning programs are far more than foot-in-the-door degrees. They’re the qualifications that employers look for when it’s time to staff management vacancies and expand leadership teams. Like the hands-on learning inherent in these programs, the return on investment for students is extremely tangible, with concrete benefits.


Writer: Robert Lamb
Editor: Shannon Helton-Amos
Digital Producer: Kelsey Harris