Quote books and websites are bursting with wit and wisdom about the enduring connection between enthusiasm and success. But with burnout an occupational hazard in college teaching as in many other fields, Macomb Community College in southeastern Michigan has begun investing in innovative faculty projects to help ensure that neither is left to chance.
“We know our faculty have a lot of great ideas about how to inspire students, but classroom lectures and labs can be constraining,” said Carole Deyer, Macomb’s dean of arts and sciences. “We wanted to encourage our faculty to reconnect with their own creative spirit and, in doing so, provide their students with that something extra that makes the learning experience memorable.”
Deyer’s own inspiration came when she talked with faculty and administrators from other colleges at a statewide conference last year and discovered how they were helping instructors and professors rekindle enthusiasm when course loads and class sizes threatened to overwhelm the best of intentions.
The end result was Macomb Community College’s Innovation Grants Program, launched last year after the formation of a committee to develop and oversee it. Grants, of approximately $5,000 on average, are awarded in the fall to faculty for projects that are:
New and innovative – not a continuation of an existing activity
Collaborative between departments/across units/or with the community
Supportive of the college’s mission, goals and priorities
Focused on student success
Faculty projects approved during the first round opened students up to worlds both old and new, with many having a pronounced impact on the community. The Spay/Neuter Program brought together veterinary technician students, faculty and alumni with a local animal shelter and led to the adoption of 88 cats and dogs.
The Archaeo-Historical Cemetery Project conducted by archeology and information technology students in collaboration with a local public library resulted in the compilation of a geological, historical and statistical database.
“The grant enabled us to take a classroom project and make it real. The skills the students learned were true archaeological skills, but the idea that their work will be published and available to the public, made it integral and important,” said Mary Meier, social science faculty, who developed the project, which included the rubbing of pre-1900 headstones at local cemeteries.
For one of the students who participated in Meier’s project, it also served as an introduction to the place she now calls home and validated a career choice she had been considering making.
“I learned a lot about the people and about the history of the area,” said Dhana Harding, an Alaska native who recently moved to Michigan with her husband and children and intends to pursue a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. “It was interesting and enlightening.”
“Enlightening” is certainly what Joe Sarnecki, Macomb science professor, had in mind when he applied for an innovation grant. His quest? Make a lasting impression on students about how local environments impact larger ecosystems. In his Great Lakes Source Waters Quality Studies project, students monitored water quality in, among other places in the state, the Clinton River Watershed, which consists of Lake St. Clair and an interconnected system of streams and rivers – all of which, ultimately, flow into Lake Huron, part of what is the largest group (in surface – second in volume) of freshwater lakes in the world.
“Water quality is a snapshot in time, and it can be quite revealing,” offered Sarnecki. “Students came back making conclusions that showed how much they had learned - including that in the field not everything works the way it is supposed to.”
As part of the project, Sarnecki shared the students’ work with the Clinton River Watershed Council, a volunteer organization committed to keeping Lake St. Clair and its tributaries as pollutant-free as possible. The council, in turn, successfully recruited a few students and faculty to participate in its “Adopt a Stream” program. One of them, Curtis Walls, a business major and lifelong resident of Macomb County, which is located on the shores of Lake St. Clair, was amazed to discover such an intimate relationship between the lake he grew up on and those that carry both ships and sediment all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
“I just didn’t know about this stuff, until going out in the field with Professor Sarnecki,” said Walls. “I found out a lot and learned about the entire Clinton River Watershed. It was something I needed to know.”
The first round of grants also provided for establishing a marketing club for students, a the installation of a small astronomical observatory for student and public use, a water quality study of the local Clinton River (separate from and involving different faculty, students and data than the Great Lakes Source Waters Quality Study), an energy audit of one of the college’s buildings including recommendations, a study on the success rates of the college’s remedial students and the Roman Signet Rings Project, which bridged art and history curriculums and took a hands-on approach to teaching students about an ancient culture.
The second round of grants was awarded this past fall to seven projects, including targeted tutoring in select mathematics classes, creating a physics playground for pre-schoolers, the raising/socialization of abandoned kittens in preparation for adoption, teaching dental hygiene to developmentally disabled adults, adding a career-ready component to the curriculum of early-admit high school students, producing an animated mathematics video to teach basic concepts and introducing relevant works of literature into sophomore-level psychology courses.
“I had read “My Secret Life on the McJob” (by Jerry Newman) and thought it would be perfect for my industrial organizational psychology course; almost every topic we cover is in there. But, I didn’t want my students to have to buy another book,” said Linda Bajdo, Macomb psychology professor. “That’s when Edie (Woods) approached me with her idea of applying for a grant to buy enough books for the library so that students could check them out for the entire semester.”
Woods’ book of choice for her social psychology class was “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, a popular work of futuristic fiction for young adults that explores cultural rituals and the ways people influence each other. A third colleague, Sara Van Wormer, chose “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls for her psychology of adjustment class.
“It’s a memoir that applies psychology strategies to cope with life’s circumstances,” explained Van Wormer.
But the project had one additional element that elevated it from book discussion to a teaching strategy with measurable outcomes. The three psychology professors are now collaborating with Deb Armstrong, Macomb’s assistant director of instructional technology, and Tequilia Cornelious, a reading instructor, to ensure that the way the three books are incorporated into their respective curriculums crystalizes course content.
“They are helping us learn how to read pop literature so that we can figure out the most strategic way to have our students read it,” explained Woods. “Part of the goals we have for this project is to get students reading.”
And Woods has good reason to believe that the project, “Using Popular Literature in Teaching Psychology,” will encourage reading as a road of discovery among students who had approached it with something akin to dutiful disdain. After piloting “The Hunger Games” in one of her classes last fall, student feedback was, she admitted, somewhat of an eye-opener.
“One of my students told me that it was the first time she had ever read an entire book in her life,” offered Woods. “And, now she wants to read more.”
For Deyer, the most compelling reason for continuing the grant program is the rejuvenation of faculty, upon which shoulders the college’s ability to provide students with meaningful learning experiences heavily rests.
“The biggest thing to me is the opportunity for intervention that can create change – that’s the greatest value. And when their colleagues see what these teachers have done with these grants, hopefully they will decide to do something on their own,” said Deyer. “It’s allowing our people to pursue their own dreams.”
For Faith Miller, one of the newest members of Macomb’s mathematics faculty, that certainly is the case.
“When I was a young girl, I wanted to write children’s stories, said Miller, whose proposal for an animated mathematics video was awarded an innovation grant in October. “But as I got older, I fell in love with mathematics. I loved being able to solve problems and look for patterns.”
At some point during graduate school, however, Miller began considering ways in which she might harmonize her two distinct passions.
“I decided that I wanted to create a good animated video teaching some mathematical concepts, and have it be lively and fun,” said Miller, who has since enlisted the aid of colleagues in the speech, and media & communication arts departments to help transform her vision into a reality. “Thinking about it, I began to get that butterfly feeling in my stomach that I haven’t felt in so long. But, most importantly, I feel this video can help a lot of students conquer fractions, and student success is my top priority.”
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