Effective Experiential Learning will be Focus of K-State’s New Coffman Chair, Nate Birkhead

Manhattan, KS— As Kansas State University’s 2022-2023 Coffman Chair for Distinguished Teaching Scholars, Nate Birkhead will assess experiential learning at the university, including identifying and assessing where its use is most successful and developing recommendations for ensuring its most effective use.
The Coffman chair was created in 1995 to highlight K-State’s commitment to excellence in undergraduate teaching and learning. Each chair is an acknowledged leading teaching scholar and is provided the time and resources to conduct a research project or develop programs to improve educational methods at the university. Recipients retain the title of teaching scholar throughout their career at K-State.
Birkhead is an associate professor of political science who teaches about the American political system at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. He also serves as director of his department’s undergraduate internship program. He helps around 35 students a year earn credit for serving internships with various political organizations, including in congressional and state legislative offices, the US Department of Justice and Homeland Security, and a number of various interest groups such as the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce.
His research and interest in effective pedagogy — including the use of experiential learning techniques in his courses — and engaging undergraduates in research are among the reasons Birkhead wanted to serve as Coffman Chair for Distinguished Teaching Scholars.
“Beyond my role as internship director, I regularly use experiential learning in class, whether it is in the form of involving students in research projects or through hands-on applications of course concepts,” Birkhead said. “I am certainly not alone in utilizing experiential learning as a part of pedagogical practice, but the science of teaching and learning still has many questions on how exactly instructors can tailor experiential learning to suit pedagogical goals. That is, I know that what we’re doing is valuable, but I want to help add to our understanding of when and what kinds of experiential learning opportunities are going to offer the best utility for students and instructors.”
During the first two months of Birkhead’s term as Coffman chair, he will develop a survey for K-State faculty across disciplines to determine what types and how common experiential learning techniques are used in their fields, as well as the and the nature of experiential learning opportunities most used in their subjects. A teaching assistant will be hired to help Birkhead administer the survey.
The second phase of his Coffman chair term will be used to assess experiential learning techniques. Birkhead will work with professors identified in his first phase who use such techniques so he can develop pre-test and post-test measures of learning outcomes to assess the effectiveness of each technique.
“While implementation of experiential learning techniques has been common across the country, what has not kept pace has been assessment of these techniques’ effectiveness,” Birkhead said. “There are many studies that show students have positive experiences with outside engagement — including my own research on this topic — but many questions remain.”
Birkhead also will use the survey to compile a directory of faculty across campus using experiential learning techniques who can serve as contacts for other faculty members considering adding or revising an experiential learning component to their courses. He also plans to share results from his Coffman project in a pedagogical journal.
Birkhead, who joined K-State in 2012, has previously been recognized as one of K-State’s top teachers, earning the Commerce Bank and W.T. Kemper Foundation Outstanding Teaching Award in 2016 and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2017. He also received an Open/Alternative Textbook Award in 2018.
Along with teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, Birkhead is sought after for student mentoring and research. He serves as a research mentor to students who are working on projects as part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ undergraduate research program. Recently, he received a National Science Foundation grant and hired seven students to help him with data collection for the project to develop an open knowledge network for public policy. He has also served as a research mentor for the Manhattan High School University Level Research Mentorship program.
Birkhead’s work has been published in serval leading journals, including Political Research Quarterly, Legislative Studies Quarterly and American Politics Research. He is the co-author of the book “Congress in Reverse: Repeals from Reconstruction to the Present,” published in 2020 by the University of Chicago Press. He also has given invited talks across the nation on effective teaching and more.
A native of Colorado, Birkhead earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Colorado and a doctorate in political science from Indiana University.