TRAVERSE CITY — Northwestern Michigan College this week announced the launching of a new Experiential Learning Institute that has the goal of expanding real-world learning opportunities for students and to get them more involved with the community.

Research shows that those kind of real-world learners are more likely to graduate from college and become lifelong self-directed learners. Through the Institute, NMC will seek creative partnerships with local businesses and nonprofits in order to serve community needs and prepare students for employment.

Kristy McDonald, one of several NMC faculty who have been certified by the New Jersey-based Experiential Education Academy, has been named director of the Institute.

“Experiential learning is important because students grow not only in their intellectual capacity but also personally, professionally, and civically,” McDonald said. “They have a greater capacity for empathy and compassion in the way they see themselves and the world.”

The Institute formalizes what many faculty and staff have been doing and embeds it throughout the college, said NMC Pres. Timothy Nelson.

One example of experiential learning is the fifth annual Big Little Hero Race taking place on April 13 at Northwestern Michigan College.

The Big Little Hero Race benefits Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Michigan. Ty Schmidt of Norte is this year’s local hero.

The event has a Fun Run at 9 a.m. that has participants wearing superhero costumes. Dogs are welcome and prizes for best adult, child and dog costume will be given out. The one-mile run is free and takes place on the main campus.

A 5K run or walk and a 10K run starts at 9:30 a.m., with the route heading out on the Old Mission Peninsula. Both races are $20 for students and $30 for adults.

People can register online at until Thursday, or in person from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Friday and from 7-9 a.m. Saturday at the Health & Science building.

“It’s a good local run to come and experience all the fun and also to donate to Big Brothers Big Sisters in the area,” said student Lyzia Laakso, who is on the marketing team.

A carnival takes place from 9:30-12:30 p.m. at the Health & Science building, and a silent auction, with all items donated by the community.

“It’s insane how much people are willing to donate,” said student Mabel Runstrom, who is in charge of the auction.

Since its inception, the race has raised more than $80,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Right now there are 84 kids waiting to be matched with a big brother or sister, said Cecilia Chesney, executive director of the organization.

“It’s not just about the money we raise, it’s about all the awareness,” Chesney said.

About 400 kids are now served by the organization, but Chesney would like see that number increase to 600, with an ultimate goal of 1,000 kids from across the region. The Hero Race is a part of a business communications class that engages students in experiential learning. The class is taught by Kristy McDonald and has students interacting with local businesses to find sponsors for the event and doing all the planning and marketing.