Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Future of Science at UM Dearborn

As the campus celebrates the opening of our newly remodeled science facility (now named the Natural Sciences Building) I thought it fitting for me to say something about our new facility. I cannot even begin to describe how radically our main science building has been transformed by this renovation. I could easily go on and on here detailing the number of research and teaching labs (there are 23), the character of our new classrooms they are leading edge), or the design of the building that enables us to showcase science live as it is happening. Indeed, that is exactly what I had planned to do. But then I received a truly inspiring email from my friend and colleague Dr. Marilee Benore. I found her description of the new building and its importance to this campus and our students to be immensely inspiring and so I decided instead to share some of her thoughts about this space with you.

As Marilee reminded me, my faculty colleagues in the Natural Sciences department, in keeping with a core value of a foundational liberal arts education, have always recognized that the smartest way to prepare future scientists, researchers and health professionals is by demonstrating and practicing the integration of the various disciplines. Rather than specializing in distinct and isolated areas and topics, the department has long demonstrated a commitment to collaborative teaching and research. Chemists work side by side with biologists, sharing teaching and laboratory strategies. Astonomers coordinate with physicists, bringing the excitement of the universe into everyday life. Crossing disciplines in CASL, behavioral biologists collaborate with students in psychology, geologists discover with anthropologists, and environmental scientists team up with screen studies faculty. In CASL, we long ago recognized what others are only noting now- problems are often solved by collaboration of individuals who think differently and bring distinct foundational theory to the problem. Students will be well grounded in foundational science, but able to converse with others, as they will have the advantage of a liberal arts core.

This is very obvious in the building that we are now opening. One of its salient features, for instance, is a new integrated Bio Physiology Lab-which will be shared by faculty and students across biology, the behavioral sciences, engineering, and the College of Education, Health, and Human Services! I cannot stress how path breaking this is: space is at a premium on every campus but the university and the NSCI faculty recognized the opportunities that would result from a shared collaborative lab. Students could bridge the gap in their understanding of genetics, behavior, and physiology, just to name a few areas. For example- Why is the hormone cortisol released after stress? Can we test the neurological and physiological markers that align and confirm that health issue?

Above all else, this building was designed to enhance that teamwork, and serve as a model for students. The collaborative spaces and recitation rooms were designed so that students could hone critical thinking skills and work with peers and faculty. The camaraderie of teamwork, the delight of solving problems, the support of peers, the mentorship of faculty and the joy that is borne with the recognition that you “freaking love science*”........ that will be the heart and soul of this building, and the legacy it will build.

Our science curriculum is a laboratory rich experience, that is best experienced when faculty themselves are in both the classroom and labs. Their presence in the lab allows them to mentor and nurture future scientists. The NSB contains everything we need to reach a broader and more diverse set of students. The addition of teaching labs means more flexibility in offerings, thus more convenience for all students: traditional FTIACs, working parents, and returning students. As another faculty member related, “I love the fact that we have nice big research labs; the one I have now is probably twice the size of my old one. Collaborative meetings with groups of students will be much more possible, given the space, the whiteboards, etc. Moreover, more than 1-2 students can be in there working at the same time and not run into each other.” Further, many of the classrooms include lecture capture technology, which will enhance our ability to use online tools. Online tools will allow more working students to complete their education.

The new labs were designed with the best in teaching and learning. Following the guidelines of Project Kaleidoscope on learning spaces, the labs were designed to be flexible- for future needs and changes in instrumentation. It will be far easier to engage students with the most updated tools of the trade. An example of this will be the iWorxs stations in the new shared labs. These modules can be used in the teaching lab and in research to study various physiological parameters.

The science of the future will not rely solely on individuals and discovery, but rather on teams comprised of individuals with diverse backgrounds, who can work together to tackle and untangle scientific problems and offer promising new pathways forward. This building and its spaces for learning and discovery were designed to support faculty research and the success of our students in doing precisely that.
With that in mind, let me echo Chancellor Little’s heartfelt thanks to all of those who made this project a reality. The investment made in our faculty and students will be returned many times over to the university and the taxpayers of Michigan. I eagerly await all of the great things that this building will inspire.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

I Have a Hypothesis

An eager arm shot into the air; “I have a hypothesis,” the student boldly offered.

Nothing new here, I can see many of you thinking; this goes on in classrooms every day. This classroom, however, was anything but typical. This CASL student and her peers were working in the field at Djúpalónssandur beach in Iceland’s Snæfellsnes National Park to interpret and understand a geologic formation that lay before them.

I had the amazing good fortune to accompany Professors Jacob Napieralski and Mark Salvatore and their geology students as they traveled across Iceland applying the theoretical information learned in the classroom to real life scenarios that they encountered throughout Iceland’s otherworldly landscape. The trip provided me with a deeper appreciation for the impact of hands on learning and the vital importance of insuring that all CASL students have access to this sort of impactful experience.

When the trip began students cautiously approached the site under consideration and asked simple, direct questions. Very quickly, however, as their confidence built and as they dug deeper into their academic tool kits their approach became much more sophisticated and they began to think long and hard about not only what they were seeing but also about why they were thinking along the lines that they were thinking. It was here where the rubber hit the road. It was here that the many abstract things that the students had learned in their reading, lectures, and labs suddenly and tangibly became real. Studying the orientation of geologic formations, plotting these against fault lines, and reading the layers of the rock strata in front of them, brought all of this learning sharply into focus and enabled the students to interpret what they were seeing and to better understand the geologic history that shaped a particular area and the geologic forces still at work. That this geologic history also shaped the human history of Iceland did not pass unnoticed by our students. Very quickly geologic history and human history merged together and yet another body of disciplinary knowledge assumed greater relevance than many previously imagined.

This is learning at its finest and it is what we strive to provide for each and every CASL student. Indeed, ensuring widespread access to this sort of opportunity (travel abroad, field work, mentored research, internships and co-op, etc.) has been a priority for my office since I became dean in 2013. Nothing could be more important for our students and nothing differentiates an UM-Dearborn education from its peers more than this practical approach to learning. That active scholars whose research is shaping the field of study that the students are engaged in are also facilitating this learning only enhances the experience and the impact of the work.

In a world where the liberal arts and humanities are increasingly under assault as superfluous luxuries it is all the more imperative that CASL remain committed to this proven pedagogy and to helping our students to see and appreciate the relevance of what they have been exposed to across the spectrum in their classrooms. Doing so will empower our students to be the confident, thoughtful, and creative thinkers that our modern world needs.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why Research Matters

Over the last few weeks I have found myself answering this question numerous times for both potential students and their families and for members of the local community. At first blush it might appear to many that the sole purpose of a university is to teach students how to prepare for productive lives, careers, and engaged citizenship. Why, given this goal, would it matter if the faculty members at a given university are engaged in research? Indeed, some might logically argue, less time devoted to research would actually free up more time for teaching (after all, many believe, a faculty member’s job is a cushy one—teach a few classes, grade a few papers/exams, take a sabbatical every five years, enjoy summers off).

This is a line of thinking that I am very familiar with and it is one that misses an incredibly important point—faculty engaged in research are actually better classroom instructors and student mentors than those who are not. It is one thing to teach material from a text or the steps in a particular process, it is altogether another thing to do this from the perspective of one who helped to shape that text or who actually employs a given process on a regular basis. Students can find a good classroom experience at a great many universities. What they cannot find as readily, however, is a classroom experience where the instruction is informed by researchers who are actively involved in impactful, cutting edge research. This is exactly the type of classroom experience, however, that the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters offers its students. Our faculty members are not just talented teachers they are also engaged scholars who are making important contributions in their respective fields. They infuse the excitement they feel about their work, the work’s impact in moving a field forward, and their love of pedagogy together into a powerful combination that truly sets a CASL experience apart from that of other universities and colleges. It is this point that I emphasize time and time again. It is, in my mind, the CASL difference and it stands at the core of why a CASL education is so impactful for so many. Our students are challenged to think about new things, new perspectives, and new approaches to problems. They are invited to play a role in the academic dialog and, in many cases, to participate in that dialog as research partners. This prepares them to step confidently into the world beyond CASL (whether it be professional school, graduate school, or the world of work) and to meet that world with the tools that they need to be tremendously successful.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities publication, College Learning for the New Global Century, sums this up nicely:
The key to educational excellence lies not in the memorization of vast amounts of information, but rather in fostering habits of mind that enable students to continue their learning, engage new questions, and reach informed judgments.
These are traits that can only be instilled by a faculty deeply committed to the principle that good scholarship informs good teaching.

Friday, January 29, 2016

An Academic Education

One of my colleagues recently shared with me this memorable quotation from The Catcher in the Rye:

"Something else an academic education will do for you. If you go along with it any considerable distance, it'll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What it'll fit and, maybe, what it won't. After a while, you'll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that don't suit you, aren't becoming to you. You'll begin to know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly."

"Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."

"I'm not trying to tell you," he said, "that only educated and scholarly men are able to contribute something valuable to the world. It's not so. But I do say that educated and scholarly men, if they're brilliant and creative to begin with – which, unfortunately, is rarely the case – tend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than men do who are merely brilliant and creative. They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end. And – most important – nine times out of ten they have more humility than the unscholarly thinker. Do you follow me at all?"

J.D. Salinger (through his character Mr. Antolini, in The Catcher in the Rye)

Any graduate of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters can tell you just how accurate this quotation is. The ability to work seamlessly across disciplines and to examine/consider questions from multiple perspectives is incredibly powerful. It is encouraging to see a number of recent articles/commentaries that speak to the power of what we do here in CASL. In this spirit I share the following piece from Forbes:

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Power of Inclusion

Recently, President Schlissel highlighted the importance of Inclusion for the University of Michigan community: “We commit to pursuing deliberate efforts to ensure that our campus is a place where differences are welcomed, different perspectives are respectfully heard and where every individual feels a sense of belonging and inclusion. We know that by building a critical mass of diverse groups on campus and creating a vibrant climate of inclusiveness, we can more effectively leverage the resources of diversity to advance our collective capabilities.”

For anyone who has spent any time at all on the UM-Dearborn campus or listening to/reading the remarks of Chancellor Little, it is abundantly evident that UM-D assumed the lead on this front long before this recent pronouncement. Indeed, for the UM-D community the idea of “Inclusion” is both well understood and widely practiced. Walking across our campus, or spending time in the University Center, one cannot help but notice the wide array of cultures, races, religions, ethnicities, and gender orientations represented among our student body and faculty. Students regularly praise this aspect of their campus and value the exposure that they have to people who are different from themselves. This attribute of UM-D positions our students to be very successful in the increasingly globalized world into which they will be stepping after they complete their studies here at the university.

It has been a source of great pride to me to listen to our students and to watch them respond to the growing wave of hate, fear, and intolerance impacting large portions of American society in light or recent events abroad and at home; much of it arguing for exclusion rather than inclusion. As so many around them denounce those they do not understand or rail against those whose views differ from their own; as friends and family take to social media to spew hatred and suspicion; as the fearmongers pander to our basest instincts, UM-Dearborn students, faculty, and staff remain steadfast in their commitment to inclusion and to the power and import of difference, tolerance, and acceptance.

I hope that you agree that this is a noble goal and one worth committing to. I am proud to be part of such a community and look forward to lending my hand to President Schlissel as he and the rest of the University of Michigan community work to build inclusiveness across the three campuses.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Guest Blog--Flatland

A very thoughtful piece from my colleague, Associate Dean and Professor of Mathematics, Michael Lachance:

In Edwin A. Abbott’s 1884 80-page Victorian allegory and geometric treatise, Flatland: A Romance of many dimensions, he envisioned a two-dimensional universe in which there was no up or down, only north, south, east, and west. In this planar world women were represented as line segments: visible only from the side, invisible if approaching you, and hence dangerous. Only slightly superior to women were soldiers, skinny isosceles triangles. Men were regular convex polygons. Each union between man and woman would yield a son, with one more side than his father. Long-lived families would have so many sides as to become indistinguishable from circles, the priestly class. Offspring that were not regular, that did not have sides of equal lengths, were destroyed.

Enter into this scenario a sphere hovering above the planar universe. The sphere reaches out to a Mr. A. Square, and eventually persuades him of the possibility, indeed the reality, of a third dimension. With the sphere’s help Mr. Square is able to escape from the plane and to see his universe for what it is. When Mr. Square asks the sphere if there is a fourth dimension, the sphere replies that that is absurd! Puzzled by this, but excited to share his newfound insights with his countrymen, he returns to the plane and is promptly imprisoned for heresy by the priests, put under the guard of lowly soldiers.

So how does one become aware of a booklet like this? And what does one do with a story like this? What’s the point? There are a number of things brought up in this summary alone that one can seize upon: the obvious insult to women, the cruelty directed at irregular children, and the arrogance of the priests. There is also the notion of a flat universe, ignorance of directions or dimensions beyond what is evident, and the certainty that nothing exists beyond your experience.

Most folks become aware of books like this, and discuss ideas like these, in universities, and more specifically in colleges of liberal arts. Universities offer a dimension, a direction, that enables us to escape our otherwise flat land.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Making it Count for our Students

As I was sifting through the avalanche of daily emails that flows into my inbox a couple of weeks back I happened upon one from a friend that included a link to a new Washington Monthly ranking of “Best Bang for the Buck” colleges and universities in the Midwest:

The friend sent it to me because UM-Dearborn fared very well on this list coming in at number seven for the entire region and outranking all of our state public peers, including the Ann Arbor campus. I was, of course, certainly thrilled to read this as it confirmed my own view of the special nature of what this university (and especially CASL) does so well. Reading a bit further about the rankings, however, left me a bit dissatisfied.

The rankings are based on an assessment of which schools are the best value for one’s money based on "net" (not sticker) price, how well the school does graduating the students they admit, and whether those students go on to earn at least enough income to pay off their loans. While these are certainly very important goals and I am ecstatic to see that UM-Dearborn measures up so well against this yardstick, I am also struck by how much the rankings miss in this rather singular focus of what constitutes bang for the buck. The reason why UM-Dearborn ranks so highly on this list is because of the incredible learning environment that exists on this campus. We prepare students to succeed in the world and that preparation in turn allows them to graduate, earn steady incomes, and to pay any student debt they may have accrued (our students actually accrue less debt than their typical state peers). While that rich learning environment is a hallmark of all four of the university’s colleges CASL stands at the heart of that success.

When I think about the high impact practices that help students to be successful I am happy to see CASL sets the pace for the university. Beyond the longstanding staples of co-operative education and internships CASL also offers first year seminars to incoming first year students, academic service learning courses, robust academic support and tutoring services, access to mentored student research, study abroad opportunities, and a wide array of cultural programming and co-curricular events. College faculty also played a critical role in creating and implementing the university’s new general education curriculum known as the Dearborn Discovery Core, which shifts general education away from our old menu style checklist to a more purposeful, outcomes based model that offers multiple paths more carefully aligned with individual student interests. Likewise, CASL faculty and staff are playing central roles in the university’s launch of the new Metro Talent Gateway, a new initiative designed to assist students to integrate their varied university experiences to better appreciate the synergy between academic pursuits, co-curricular activities, engagement, internships, etc. and to prepare them for life beyond the university.

There is much great work being done on this front and I am happy to add that there is much more to come. CASL is embarking upon an aggressive campaign to ramp up our student success efforts to ensure even more positive outcomes. The 2015-2016 academic year promises to be an exciting one. I look forward to working alongside of my faculty and staff colleagues to ensure that both CASL and UM-Dearborn continue to deliver excellent value to our students and to ensure that they are well positioned to be successful in whatever path they choose to travel.