How We Learn by Doing

Six Mustangs share how they take their education in their own hands — from making sausage to designing prosthetic devices.

Two people fit a prosthetic device on a hand

Photos by Joe Johnston

It’s the reason countless students and faculty have chosen Cal Poly, and have continued to thrive in their lives and careers after leaving campus. It’s the spectrum of skill-building, mettle-testing, perspective-widening experiences we call Learn by Doing. As the world evolves, those experiences continue to change as well. In this feature, six Cal Poly students share what Learn by Doing looks like for them today.


A Cal Poly architecture student holds an electric drill in a partially built structure in Poly Canyon

Hannah Cho assembles a new research structure at the Poly Canyon Experimental Structures Lab

Architecture for Everyone

By Hannah Cho, architecture student

In my education, I’ve had lots of opportunities to explore pure design, imagining beautiful, futuristic structures. But Professor Dylan Kreuger’s research design-build class scratched my itch to combine designing and building.

Our assignment as a class was to design a building that represents “accessory structures,” buildings that people seemingly throw together to create a large sheltered space, like barns and sheds. We highlighted the key features that made up these structures and built those elements into a 4-foot by 4-foot assembly. It was like taking a small chunk out of a building and going through the whole process of building that chunk from start to finish; almost like a building crash course!

We prefabricated the walls from studs to finishing shingles, then put them together on site, which was a method I had never had experience doing. It was a pretty confusing process to test-fit the edge conditions, and it became a little too real when we were drilling the foundation screws into the ground with our hands.

The whole process felt like breaking the rules, which was exciting. Whatever design choices that had to be made, we made on the spot rather than within a computer. There were so many factors, like warped wood and uneven wood sizes, that you don’t have to worry about in the digital realm of perfectly straight lines.

In the summer, I am going to Tanzania on a building mission trip, where I will be helping communities create housing from design to completion. I hope to get to know the communities there and how we can highlight their culture in the structures we design and build.

This means a lot to me because before college, I went on another mission trip that changed my life and has helped me discover what I want to do with it.

My group and I helped build a basic stucco home for a family in Mexico that had been living under a single corrugated steel panel. I began to realize that good architectural design and quality construction are often a luxury only available to the wealthy. As a privileged student who was able to get an education at Cal Poly, I wanted to learn all I could so I could guide community building crews in situations like that.

All this hands-on work is also important to my career goals, which are connected to my senior project. I want to explore new affordable ways that structures can open up to integrate with nature while being able to close up to withstand natural disasters in fire-prone areas of Southern California. Just like in this class, I want to be a part of every step of designing and building the transformative structure, so that I can spread that knowledge to make it accessible for anyone living in these fire zones.

Two Cal Poly students test fit a prosthetic device in an engineering lab

Maggie Collier (left) and Rachel Rowe test fit a prosthetic device in the TECHE (Transforming Engineers Through Community Hands-on Engagement) Lab.

A Human Touch

By Rachel Rowe and Maggie Collier, biomedical engineering students

What started as a regularly scheduled biomedical engineering lab would turn out to change the life of one student.

Maggie Collier was born with a condition called amniotic band syndrome. While in utero, bands of the amniotic sac got tangled around her limbs, leaving her left middle and ring fingers severely underdeveloped, and her pinky and pointer fingers with fused joints. Maggie grew up learning how to do everything with the hands she was born with, struggling with some activities like the monkey bars, but persevering through any challenge. Though she decided to pursue a biomedical engineering degree at Cal Poly in hopes of helping others with disabilities, the thought of seeking out a prosthetic for herself never crossed her mind.

One day in an Introduction to Biomedical Engineering Design class, that all changed. Maggie showed up to her intro to design lab, intrigued to learn about materials, molding and their applications. While her classmates geared up to make a mold of their thumb, Maggie asked if she could mold her fingers. Her professor, David Laiho, responded by saying, “Why stop there?”

In the next few months, Laiho helped Maggie find an opportunity to create her own prosthetic fingers. EMPOWER, a student-run club on campus enthusiastically took on the project.

Maggie and I built a team of seven engineering students, including ourselves, to work on this yearlong formal design experience. The goal of this project was to create a prosthetic finger device designed to help Maggie lift heavy objects and those that have a large diameter while interfacing with her existing fingers and hand. The thing that drew everyone to this project specifically was that we are able to work with fellow students to make a tangible difference in the life of our classmate. Having Maggie herself on the team has truly made this experience so special and unique because we are able to tailor every little piece to her specific needs and get her feedback at every step.

This has shown us just how customized prosthetics are to each individual patient and how much time and energy has to go into creating each one.

Maggie sums up the impact of this project best in her own words:

“With the project nearing its conclusion, I am still having a hard time believing that it is real. I knew coming into this what my goals were, but words can’t describe what it is like to see it all come together. I will forever be grateful to this team for hearing out all my ideas and making them a reality. They have been so supportive and invested in the project and have made the experience even more special to me.

“As an engineer, I have learned so many valuable skills and lessons, but that is just the surface. I feel so lucky that one day, when I am helping other people like me, I will be able to connect with them on a much deeper level. I am walking away from this project with invaluable experiences that will help me become the best biomedical engineer that I can be.”

A Cal Poly student dancer strikes a pose in a rehearsal studio

Joyce Lam rehearses in the Moon Ja Minn Suhr Dance Studio, named for the professor emerita who founded Orchesis in 1969.

A Delicate Dance

By Joyce Lam, business administration student

When I first decided to attend Cal Poly, I knew I wanted to continue to dance throughout my college experience. I stumbled upon the Cal Poly Orchesis Dance Company and was immediately intrigued — but intimidated by the audition process. Fast forward to my first week of fall quarter: after an hour of refreshing the Orchesis Instagram page in restless anticipation, I found myself squealing to my roommate that I had made it in the company!

Each year, Orchesis selects 25-30 dancers to enroll in DANC 345 and DANC 346, where the curriculum involves rehearsing for a slate of public performances at the start of winter quarter. Company members are privy to a unique range of curated classes from faculty members and guest artists, including ballet, modern, contemporary, West African, Mexican Folklórico, Middle Eastern and more.

There’s something about the pure, unbridled love of dance that everyone shares that allows the company to feel like a family, even when we’re spending countless hours rehearsing late into the night. My dancing has evolved, thanks to a melting pot of the different people I have worked with over the years. As a business administration major concentrating in accounting and information systems, the structured nature of my studies offers little room for artistry. Because I am someone who values order yet enjoys creativity, I appreciate that my major and dance minor work together to scratch those opposing itches in my brain.

I also took the opportunity to choreograph a piece for Orchesis after being inspired by Salvador Dalí’s painting, The Persistence of Memory. The luxurious textures within Dalí’s depiction of melting clocks were so vivid and moving, and I wanted to conceptualize that onstage. Along with creating the actual choreography for the dance, I selected the music and costumes, and worked with lighting designer Clint Bryson to build an atmosphere that truly embodied my vision. Being able to be part of every step of the process in bringing my piece to life truly exemplified Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing philosophy, and it was an invaluable experience.

The most priceless part of being in Orchesis is the people. I had the privilege of working as an administrative intern for my third and fourth year with our director, Professor Diana Stanton, and assistant director, Professor Michelle Walter, who have both fostered an environment where every company member is valued and given the tools and space to grow as dancers. I know all my roles in Orchesis have allowed me to hone soft skills like collaboration, creativity and leadership that will help me thrive in the corporate workforce.

As I anticipate joining Frank, Rimerman + Co. as an accountant after graduation, I have already begun searching for dance opportunities in the Bay Area, where I’ll start working in the fall. Reminiscent of how I felt entering Cal Poly, I don’t quite feel ready to be done with dance just yet!

A Cal Poly food science student cuts sausage in a test kitchen

Shreyash Patel in the test kitchen at Cal Poly’s Meat Processing Center.

How the Sausage is Made

By Shreyash Patel, animal science student

From birth, my parents raised me vegetarian. No judgment on those who eat meat, but I stay vegetarian because I would feel bad if I had to kill an animal every time I eat it.

That’s why I was so curious about the recent advancements in the field of cell-cultured meat, and it has now become my career goal. In fact, the only time I’ve ever eaten meat in my life was when animal science Professor Ike Kang took us on a field trip to a lab facility where they are growing meat from cultured salmon cells.

But since lab-grown meat is still pretty new technology, it is very hard to get any experience in the field. I decided the next best thing was to get experience with real meat, so I took Professor Kang’s sausage enterprise course. I ended up loving the class so much that I took the Meat Processing Enterprise course next, got hired at Cal Poly Meats, and even decided to earn a master’s degree in agriculture with a specialization in animal science under Professor Kang.

In one of the classes I recently took, ASCI 484: Meat Processing, I began experimenting making my own sausage recipe for one of the lab projects. I created a pork tequila sausage based on a rough outline of ingredients Professor Kang shared with us. My version of the recipe won the Best Sausage title in the class.

My manager at Cal Poly Meats liked it so much that he suggested I refine it and enter it in the California Association of Meat Processors competition. The event involves students from schools all over the state, including UC Davis, Chico State and Fresno. Quite a few of my coworkers also decided to participate in the event and help represent Cal Poly.

To prepare for the competition, we made many test batches of our recipes. But how do you figure out whether the sausage recipe you’re developing is any good if you’re a vegetarian? Basically, every time I made a batch, I would feed it to all of my friends and ask for their opinions. Each week I would take their suggestions, come up with a new version and give a bit to all of my friends, both here in SLO and back home in San Jose to try and make the recipe better.

Eventually, after a few revisions, I ended up with my final recipe. The sausage is pork with authentic Mexican spices. I added flame-roasted pasilla peppers, cilantro, and most importantly, tequila and lime juice. I decided to name my sausage recipe Trickyy Tequila.

While I ended up getting fourth place at the competition overall, I finished first among the other Cal Poly entries. I really had fun with the competition, and I find it really amusing that I did so well despite the fact that I never even tasted my own recipe.

A student journalist sits in the booth at Cal Poly radio station KCPR

Zoe Boyd hosting her weekly radio show in the broadcasting booth at KCPR.

On the Air

By Zoe Boyd, journalism student

Growing up in San Luis Obispo County, I fell in love with the local music scene. Throughout high school, I attended concerts, house shows and art events in SLO, many of them sponsored or created by KCPR 91.3 FM, Cal Poly’s student-run and listener-supported radio station.

When I came to Cal Poly, I was eager to join the station and be a part of an organization that keeps my hometown vibrant. I applied to join KCPR as a freshman, becoming a DJ after a rigorous interview process.

Today I am the programming and music director for KCPR, which specializes in new alternative music. KCPR’s FM signal can be picked up as far north as Lake Nacimiento and as far south as Santa Maria, with the ability to reach roughly 390,000 people. Our online media player on KCPR.org has enabled us to have a worldwide listener base.

Some of my job’s responsibilities include managing a staff of about 40 stellar DJs — all Cal Poly students — overseeing and choosing what new music is ingested into the station, working with record labels and music promoters worldwide, booking bands for KCPR’s live events, and DJing a radio show once a week myself.

I consider KCPR the best Learn by Doing experience I could have had in college. Although you do not have to be a journalism major to work here, the station is a part of Mustang Media Group, and the journalism department oversees us, so we get class credit for being a part of KCPR.

All journalism majors are required to complete an internship, and I found my internship through the promoters I work with at KCPR. I interned with a music promoter called The Syndicate, where I wrote press releases for artists including The Clash, one of my all-time favorite bands.

KCPR has such a vibrant community of hard-working students who are dedicated to carrying on the legacy of a radio station that has existed since the 1960s. One of my favorite parts of the station is looking through the old CDs and vinyl records and seeing promotional copies of iconic albums that date back to the beginnings of KCPR. I’m lucky I get to contribute to part of the station’s story.

I have met so many people who all come together to make KCPR a hub for local arts and culture. Our slogan, “Where Different Matters,” encapsulates our collective dedication to uplifting underrepresented voices in the arts, such as BIPOC and LGBTQ+ voices, songs and stories through our on-air music programming and articles on our website, KCPR.org.

I always say that I consider myself to have already worked my dream job in college, thanks to the Learn by Doing nature of KCPR. It has been a beacon of light in my college experience.

A Cal Poly biology student uses a tool to scan dried flowers pressed in large books

T.J. Samojedny scans plants using a portable X-ray fluorescence device in the Hoover Herbarium.

Branching Out

By T.J. Samojedny, biological sciences student

When I began conducting botany research as a freshman with Professor Nishi Rajakaruna, I never anticipated that it would eventually lead me across the world.

But in November 2022, Nishi gave me the extraordinary opportunity to travel to South Africa as a visiting researcher. In this capacity, I presented my research to a group of international students and faculty, and led a two-day workshop.

My research utilizes X-ray fluorescence (XRF) technology to analyze the metal content of dried plant specimens. The goal is to discover hyperaccumulators, which are plants that take in high concentrations of heavy metals.

Since these plants essentially suck up metals from the soil, they can be used to biologically remediate land that’s been contaminated by being excessively mined, as well as in phytomining, which is a process by which metals can be extracted from plants using more environmentally friendly methods than traditional practices.

I was due to present my research the day after I arrived in South Africa, so my nervousness combined with jetlag was certainly challenging — but that was quickly alleviated by the kind, curious students and researchers I met.

The study of hyperaccumulators is relatively niche, so the first time most of the students heard about it was when I came to share my work with them. Since mining is such a considerable part of the South African economy, many students were excited about the potential for real-world applications of this research as an environmentally friendly form of mining.

However, I learned more from my South African colleagues than they did from me. I quickly realized that biologists are the best people to travel with. Over the following two weeks in South Africa, I saw 150 species of birds, countless rare plants and the charismatic African megafauna every American dreams of seeing.

My time there included field work too, so I visited remote habitats with unusual soils such as serpentine to collect rare plants that will be analyzed by the students with the XRF technology they have now been trained on. I was also immersed in a completely new culture, tried new foods and witnessed new customs that made this trip a wonderful, brief study-abroad experience.

I’ll always be grateful for this trip and to the people and plants I met who taught me how to be a scientist. After graduation, I strive to have a career in which I help foster healthy relationships between humans and their landscapes.

A project like this, where we are searching for alternative ways to provide resources for a growing world, is very rewarding. In societies like ours, where our relationship with plants often does not extend beyond the lettuce on our burger, it’s fulfilling to reconnect with the shiny green things that provide us so much life.