Underneath stringed lights and neon signs, the next generation of media makers create real-world work at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications’ Experience Lab.
Housed in both the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Andersen Hall and the third-floor of the Lincoln Children’s Museum, the Experience Lab is an experiential education opportunity that allows students to do from day one.
“Our vision for the college is to be the leader in experiential education in journalism and mass communication,” said Shari Veil, dean of journalism and mass communication.
With the college already heralding a variety of engaging undergraduate opportunities, the Experience Lab perfectly pulled together their hands-on mission. Lab courses provide students with one credit hour per semester, allowing them to chip away at degree requirements while also creating real-world work. The lab allows students an opportunity to learn by doing — from cutting podcasts, to filming news reels, to writing engagement reports for actual industry clients.
“Media is changing so fast, and we have to prepare students to be nimble. They’re going to have to adjust. This is not something that you can simply teach in a classroom and send them out the door,” Veil said. “There is so much applied expertise that is needed in our field, and for our students to be able to come in and experiment, play, fail, try again and develop their skills and their ability to be nimble — I think is just critical for them going out into our rapidly changing industry.”
The lab currently houses seven media outlets: Jacht, Buoy, Heartland Webzine, KRNU, Nebraska News Service, UNLimited Sports and Nebraska Nightly. Some of the names may seem familiar, having been college staples for student activity throughout the years. The Experience Lab shifts the programs slightly, allowing students to participate while receiving course credit.
Each lab provides a distinct focus, allowing students to specialize skills in particular content areas or to explore options throughout the course of their collegiate careers. The labs include:
- Jacht, an advertising and public relations agency;
- Buoy, an advertising and public relations agency for non-profits;
- Nebraska News Service, a statewide wire service;
- Nebraska Nightly, a recorded news show;
- KRNU, the campus radio station;
- Heartland Webzine, an online community magazine for Nebraska; and
- UNLimited Sports, a Nebraska sports reporting program/
Each lab also provides professionals-in-residence to help guide students. The professionals-in-residence were handpicked for subject knowledge and esteem within their industry. In addition to guiding students, these professionals scope out the newest faces of the communications industry and identify potential interns or new employees before even putting up a job posting. They also provide a unique perspective and face-to-face mentorship opportunity, serving as industry conduits that share trends and insights directly to undergraduates.
“It’s cool to see and hear from them about their own experience of what they have done, where they’re at and what their experiences have been,” said Hanna Christensen, a student in the Experience Lab.
Journalism and mass communications faculty Jill Martin and Jemalyn Griffin knew from the beginning that the Experience Lab would be special.
The two were appointed by Veil to lead the creation of the learning hub. After in-depth strategic planning sessions with more than 75 stakeholders and months of preparation, the lab broke ground in summer 2021 with the training of their crew of lab leaders.
Now, Martin and Griffin have seen the lab grow from an idea to a dedicated space where students will ultimately spend three semesters studying.
The college is also developing plans to renovate areas within Andersen Hall for added Experience Lab space. The plan calls for Andersen Hall’s second-floor space with floor-to-ceiling televisions and a newsroom-like atmosphere to be renovated and expanded, creating an even larger studio area for broadcasting endeavors.
Rather than working in classrooms and lecture halls, Experience Lab students will work in studios and offices that mirror professional spaces. In the new Experience Lab floor in the Lincoln Children’s Museum, rooms are sponsored by local area advertising agencies and feature their logos and branding. Lab spaces are decorated with strings of bulbed lights draped across ceilings, laid-back seating and light-up neon signs that reflect the space’s young professional energy.
Welcomed by students, the design mirrors trendy co-working spaces featured in agencies, startups and newsrooms.
With a new space comes new energy. And it’s something that leaders have already noticed among the 90-some students enrolled in the pilot Experience Lab semester.
“It’s really magic to be able to see the student leads, the students in the practicum and the Experience Lab professionals-in-residence partner to solve these creative challenges that we have and to really tell those stories in impactful ways,” Griffin said.
The lab will become a requirement for all students in fall 2022. The move will shift enrollment from 90 to more than 600 — and college leaders are itching to to see what content expanded use will generate.
“We just want to grow,” said Martin. “And we want to provide as many opportunities to students as possible.”