Aeronautics students in 1928 with "The Glenmont," a six-passenger plane patterned after The Spirit of St. Louis which students built. Courtesy | University Archives

If you were a mechanics student at Cal Poly in 1903, odds are you were laying foundations and hammering together buildings. If you were studying agriculture, you were building roads and planting trees. In a couple of years, you or your peers were delivering the mail, cleaning the floors and emptying the trash.

The history of Cal Poly’s “Learn by Doing” slogan — as told through archival newspaper articles and annual reports — details the rise and peak of a fully student-run polytechnic campus.

Cal Poly’s educational philosophy existed since before the university was chartered. Local journalist Myron Angel described a need for schools to “teach the hand as well as the head.”

Through Angel’s activism, Cal Poly was chartered in 1901 by the state of California with an emphasis on agriculture and experiential learning.

“It began in agriculture,” Robert E. Kennedy Library archivist Laura Sorvetti said. “They knew it would be an agricultural school, and they knew they wanted to do practical learning,”

In letters to the State Board of Education, Leroy Anderson, the first Director of Cal Poly, wrote “all instruction should be as largely as possible through the medium of actual performance by the pupils themselves.” Leroy also said Cal Poly should not have tuition costs.

“It would seem eminently proper that the tuition in the school be free,” Anderson wrote. “Rent and board may be required, but only to cover actual costs, and students should work no more than four hours a day to achieve a work-life balance.”

Room and board cost $25 a month, and books and supplies were maxed out at $35. This created an annual cost of $260, or $7,000 in today’s money, according to the 1906 course catalog.

The first faculty and students of Cal Poly. Director Leroy Anderson, far right front row, wrote that students should work four hours each day to learn their curriculum. Courtesy | University Archives

In 1924, Ray Crandall became university president and brought with him a project system that continues to this day.

The name of the slogan was not “Learn by Doing,” but “Earn while you learn.” Each project was expected to last at least 60 days, and were primarily agricultural startups.

“It was all about giving students the opportunity to work on campus, to earn [their] way through school,” Sorvetti said.

The school kept 50 percent of the profits from these enterprises, and the rest was given back to the students who ran the programs.

The mantra of “Learn by Doing” emerged on Cal Poly’s campus in 1930, when there was still no charge for tuition, and total cost of a year-long education was $429, according to the 1930 California Polytechnic Bulletin, or $6,500 adjusted for inflation. Students were now permitted to keep all the money they earned from their enterprise projects after paying back whatever loans they received from a local bank.

Many of the students could pay their own way through Cal Poly with the money they earned from their projects, but a 1932 report from the state education department still called the cost per student excessively high and called for the abolishment of Cal Poly as a learning institute.

Cal Poly President Julian A. McPhee took over from Crandall in 1934, bringing a heavy agricultural background with him.

McPhee was the chief of the State Bureau of Agricultural Education and was involved in Future Farmers of America (FFA), which emphasized practical learning, Mark Shelton, horticulture and crop science professor emeritus, said.

Shelton was Cal Poly’s beekeeper and worked as the associate dean of the College of Agriculture for 18 years.

“We really are a product of the FFA and 4-H approach, the hands-on, experiential learning,” Shelton said.

Cal Poly’s aeronautics department repaired Amelia Earhart’s plane in June 1936 as part of Cal Poly’s “Earn while you learn, and learn by doing” teaching philosophy. Courtesy | Kennedy Library Online Archives
Cal Poly’s aeronautics department repaired Amelia Earhart’s plane in June 1936 as part of Cal Poly’s “Earn while you learn, and learn by doing” teaching philosophy. Courtesy | Kennedy Library Online Archives

In 1934, students raised and sold 621 animals at a combined value of $273,000 in today’s money.

Students overhauled five airplanes between 1934 and 1935, McPhee reported. The work was estimated at a value of $3,000, or $56,500 in today’s money.

Electrical industry majors operated the campus’ power plant, and 85 percent of students enrolled worked on campus as groundskeepers, auto shop workers or in other vocational jobs. These students on average would earn $12.40 monthly, $228 in today’s money. McPhee’s reports do not say how many hours these students worked per month. No outside work was permitted on campus since all the tasks could be easily done by students, a 1935 report from McPhee stated. From maintenance to farming, the campus was student-run, and “earn while you learn” had expanded past its agricultural roots.

In 1947, Cal Poly enrolled 2,229 students and employed nine administrators. Peruvian and Argentine ambassadors came to Cal Poly to learn from the campus’ educational model.

The Cal Poly Foundation, which has evolved into the Cal Poly Corporation, provided a billion dollar fund for students to draw from. The Foundation was managed entirely  by faculty members.

But the time of a campus-wide Learn by Doing program had already reached its peak, according to McPhee.

In annual reports to the state education board, McPhee said a lack of space and adequate facilities, as well as a decrease in agricultural enrollment, caused smaller proportions of the student body to engage in projects than they had in the 1930’s.

“The increasing popularity of the Engineering Division and the growth of the Science and Humanities departments contributed to the trend toward a lessening in project participation by Polytechnic students,” McPhee wrote.

Despite McPhee’s claim, Learn by Doing continued as the main model of Cal Poly.

“I think Learn by Doing is still our motto, and it’s still our leading principle,” Shelton said.

Meanwhile, other principles have faded with time.

Anderson’s initial model of no tuition and high affordability is no longer present. Yearly tuition — once zero — is now $9,000, and the total cost of attending Cal Poly, including housing, food and supplies, is estimated by Cal Poly’s financial aid website at $27,000. In 1903, it was $7,000. In 1930, when a report called the cost of attendance extreme, the total cost of attending was $6,500 in today’s money.

The history of Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing is long, persistent and still being written. From its beginnings as a vocational school, faculty leaders have encouraged experiential learning.

“It’s throughout campus now and I don’t see that ever changing,” Shelton said.

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