Take a peek into archival footage brought from the future to discover how the learning paths were transformed by Purpose Learning.
Special thanks to Victor Saad and Experience Institute for permission to use their video footage and for being an inspirational project partner.
The Stanford graduate is known as a “leader of enterprise, builder of states,” as touted by the institution’s first president, David Starr Jordan. Situated in Silicon Valley, Stanford had always celebrated the relationship with industry and opportunities for students to apply their learning in context.
A few decades into the 21st century, faculty noticed a change in incoming Stanford students. Already familiar with the core content being taught due to online course exposure during high school, they showed greater abilities in both integrative thinking and collaboration than ever before. Experts in educational theory drew the link between the widespread adoption of project-based learning in K-12 education that began with the Occupy Kindergarten movement, and the emerging needs of students entering college.
Bodies like the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which had long been collecting research on high-impact educational practices such as Service Learning and Capstone Courses, also noted that these
consistently outpaced traditional methods in rates of student retention and student engagement. Following the boom and bust cycle of the 2nd Great Tech Bubble, generations of students who had once aspired to catch “startup fever,” began to question the viability—and desirability—of those pathways.
The millennial generation, which had once been derided as self-involved “slacktivists” who were content to click a button and sign a petition, matured into leaders of companies and organizations that considered social impact as well as financial impact.
The seeds for this professional revolution had been growing for a while, but once "meaning" and "company culture" soared past salary in the job search criteria of graduating seniors, the tide
These changes prompted Stanford to reinvent the "why" of higher education for its undergraduates.
As Stanford graduates would soon be called upon to lead in a world in which economic, political, social and technological disruptions created some of the largest collective risks that humans had yet faced, the University established Purpose Learning, whereby students declared a mission, not a major. The intent was that students couple their disciplinary pursuit with the purpose that fueled it.
“I’m a biology major” was replaced by “I’m learning human biology to eliminate world hunger.” Or “I’m learning Computer Science and Political Science to rebuild how citizens engage with their governments.”
The goal was to help students select a meaningful course of study while in school, and then scaffold a clear arc for the first 10 - 15 years of their professional lives. It wasn’t about the career trajectory, but the reasons behind it.
To support Purpose Learning, Stanford launched a series of Impact Labs around the world in which faculty and students tackled global challenges through immersion. Soon after the launch of these Impact Labs, Stanford partnered with the International Olympic Committee to create an innovative rollout model. Much like the Olympics, which attracted the world’s best athletes to come together and push the boundaries of human endurance, speed, and physical prowess, the Impact Labs became the academic analogue. Over the next 15 years, seven new Labs (each inaugurated during an Olympic Games) attracted the top faculty from not only Stanford but from institutions around the world to come together for in-context research and application.
Countries vied to host the Olympics not just for the media attention and national pride -- they did so, in part, for the local learning and research infrastructure that would be built as a result of a winning bid for the Impact Lab. They recognized that the Impact Lab would result in long-term in impact on that society’s human capital development.
Twenty-two years after the founding of the program, a decade-long collaboration between Stanford, MIT and IIT accomplished its moonshot goal of making clean water accessible for every person living in South Asia.
As this global infrastructure for purpose-driven learning unfolded, students opted to spend a year in an Impact Lab in increasing numbers. They began applying their field of study immediately to challenges they cared about and returned from their Impact Lab experiences motivated to delve more deeply into the content and competencies that enabled them to advance their mission.
Double Nobel Prize Winner Yasmin Bhuhati (‘24, MS ME ‘28, PhD Microbiology ‘32) recounts her impact year in Ghana working on water and sanitation: “I developed a greater respect for the complexities of the challenge of water after my year in Accra. And a new appreciation for why I needed to pay attention in my fluid dynamics class upon my return to Silicon Valley! Working with leading faculty from around the globe and local partners who kept us grounded was truly an honor.”
Together, these Impact Labs, now located in 25 countries on six continents, rival the California hub in faculty and student numbers and have increased Stanford’s capacity to build a student body unrivaled in global diversity. For those who remained on the Palo Alto campus, Stanford selected seven big global problems each decade to which faculty from different disciplines would rally as a focal point of application for teaching their subject matter.
One sign that the shift toward connecting meaning or “the why” behind one’s studies and actions came when the phrase “what’s your verb?” started to creep into the Stanford lexicon. A cross between “how are you doing today,” “what classes are you taking this quarter” and “why?”, this new idiom spun off into a variety of media.
Inspired by the work they were doing to investigate the kind of impact they were most interested in working toward, students started wearing Stanford t-shirts that just said, “To Ignite.” “To Build.” “To Challenge.” “To Persuade.” Soon, this unofficial tagline became the organizing principle for the new portfolios students had to create to graduate. Demonstrating evidence of clarity of purpose and experience creating impact, along with mastery of subject matter was key.
In Purpose Learning:
- Stanford graduates accelerated both their personal sense of meaning and outward global impact
- Alumni fondly reflected on how their personal missions established while at Stanford acted as an anchor as they charted their path beyond the Farm
- An endless list of contributions to issues of poverty, health, infrastructure, renewable energy, global governance, space travel, artistic and cultural achievement, etc.
Exhibit Article Archive
Browse below to search through video archives of the exhibits displayed on May 1st, 2100.
GETTING “THE CALL”
Recordings of Stanford Reserve Corps messages
The phone displayed here plays several actual recordings given to students upon receiving the news of their rotation in the Stanford Reserve Corps. The Reserve Corps was created in 2024 to create an experiential and immersive learning experience that challenged students to apply their declared mission in context.
As a secondary goal, the Stanford Reserve Corps existed to provide support to areas of need in collaboration with partner organizations around the world. Stanford was grateful for the longstanding relationships it forged with project partners, and for inculcating a spirit of service, humility and braveness amongst its populi.
As you will hear in the messages, Stanford students relocated to Collectives for one month before traveling to prepare for the journey ahead of them along with their team of peers.
LISTEN TO STANFORD RESERVE CORPS CALLS
AT THE FARM AND AROUND THE WORLD
Evolution of the Stanford campus map and flyover of Impact Lab sites
Stanford’s footprint at home and abroad has shifted continuously throughout history.
Part one of this projection shows the evolution of the campus map from 1902 through select intervals until the advent of undergraduate teaching hubs in 2024. A hallmark of the Axis Flip era, these hubs had a Dean at the center of each. Faculty were co-located at hubs for periods of time to develop and teach new courses.
Part two is a flyover of a handful of global Impact Labs. Students often spent up to a year in an Impact Lab as a way to apply their field of study to challenges they cared about. Sometimes thought of as an academic analogue to the Olympics, Impact Labs attracted the top faculty from Stanford and around the world for in-context research and application.
WATCH HISTORY OF CAMPUS MAPS AND IMPACT LABS
DECLARE A MISSION, NOT A MAJOR
Recovered time capsule images
In response to the hunger for the meaning or ‘why’ behind one’s studies, Stanford piloted the “Declare a Mission, not a Major” program in 2017, in which students coupled their area of learning with the purpose that fuels it.
Launched formally in 2021, Purpose Learning prompted the launch of a series of “Impact Labs” around the world in which faculty and students tackled global challenges through immersion.
Iconic Impact Lab examples include the ten-year collaboration between Stanford, MIT and IIT which accomplished its ‘moonshot’ goal of making clean water accessible for every citizen in Southeast Asia.