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The Green House Grants Blog

Thinking about an Innovation Grant? Don’t skip these important first steps

So perhaps you have some creative ideas floating around your head … ideas to help students succeed, or possible solutions to help with student retention.

If you’re like me, your idea might feel a bit half-baked … the start of something cool, but you feel like you need to talk it out with another colleague.

Awesome, let’s work with that.

Or maybe you love your idea but are totally mystified and overwhelmed by the grant process.

That’s OK, we’ve all been there.

So let’s take some baby steps to see what might be possible with the Educational Foundation’s Innovation Grant: an excellent starter grant with pretty good odds for funding.


Step 1: Read the Innovation Grant application. All the way through. It’s only five pages long (which, compared to a federal grant RFP, is easy-peasy).

Give the application just 10 or 15 minutes of your time, even if you skimmed it before the holiday break.

Personally, I like to print out all documents and read with a highlighter in hand.

Download it here: 2018-2019_Innovation_Grant_Application

Go ahead, I’ll wait ….

The most important information for this grant (or any grant) should be in this application, including an explanation of the submission process … the deadline (March 30) … and the maximum amount considered ($10,000).

Most importantly, it goes over the rules and intent of the grant. Does your idea make a good fit?

And do you even qualify? (The answer is yes, because according to the FAQs >>>  FAQs_Innovation_Grant_2018 <<<  all members of Virginia Western faculty and classified staff, including adjunct faculty and part-time employees, are eligible to submit proposals.)


Step 2: Time to talk

Hopefully you noticed the number of signatures required on the application cover page (which note earlier deadlines).

The grant process will require multiple conversations, so please allow time for those conversations early in the process … the worst thing to do is wait to complete the application at the last minute.

New this year is a Scoring Matrix:


Take the time to read this document, too, because this is how the Educational Foundation board members will judge the proposals.

And here is a key point about the Scoring Matrix to keep in mind:

We often encourage collaborative approaches and projects around campus in general, but this grant actually awards up to 10 points for collaboration with another colleague, department, student group, or outside organization. Teamwork truly makes the dream work, so build those bridges early.

Finally, as you consider submitting an Innovation Grant, please make it a top priority to discuss your ideas not only with your colleagues, but with your supervisor and/or dean early in the process. The conversations you have NOW can help refine your idea or connect it with others that might be percolating within your own department.


Step 3: Proposal workshops

If you believe your idea is a good fit for the grant, and you plan on submitting a proposal, consider signing up for the Innovation Grant Workshop (perhaps with your collaborative partner?).

I’m piloting some small, 1-hour workshops in the grants office on two dates so far … Wednesday, Feb. 7 (10 to 11 a.m.), and Thursday, Feb. 8 (3 to 4 p.m.).

That gives you a little over three weeks to hold those important conversations and gather the information required for the application.

During the workshop, we’ll go through the application step-by-step. Bring your questions … and a laptop or iPad if you want to write or edit your proposal as we talk.

I may schedule additional workshops (in groups or one-on-one) depending on the demand.

Please sign up for the limited number of spaces at this link:


Or reach out to me directly if those times/days don’t work for you:

Stephanie O. Seagle |  sseagle@virginiawestern.edu | 857-6084

I can’t wait to hear your ideas!

Posted on January 15, 2018

‘Western, we have a problem’: 5 tough takeaways from Dr. Monty Sullivan

More than 20 years since I first watched “Apollo 13,” I’m often reminded of one particular scene.

And no, it’s not, “Houston, we have a problem.”

In order to save the Apollo crew, a group of NASA engineers raced against the clock to create a carbon dioxide filter from the limited equipment available in the spacecraft.

They quite literally had to figure out how to put a square peg in a round hole.

I love this scene because it required not only creative problem-solving skills but also teamwork under life-or-death stress. Watch it here.

After hearing Dr. Sandel and Dr. Monty Sullivan challenge us to work together on our enrollment and retention goals — to influence our future instead of being at the mercy of the trend lines — I was reminded once again of that dramatic “Apollo 13” scene.

Racing against the enrollment declines, I imagine our college sitting around a big table with the parts of VWCC spread around for all to examine … questioning and re-imagining their original purpose. How might we make the parts work better together … to help all of our students shoot for the moon?

Our budget isn’t the only potential casualty. The lives of our students — and our community — depend on the answers.

But before we explore some possible answers, we need to ask the right questions.

Dr. Sullivan’s presentation to the college on Jan. 4 was inspiring and chock full of ideas (loved the work ethic grades on transcripts!), but these are the five tough questions that got my attention:


(1) Would you send your child to Virginia Western? Why or why not? If not, what would change your answer?


(2) What makes Virginia Western special? What do we offer that is changing lives … or could be changing lives?


(3) We are not a university. How would we refine/re-imagine/redesign our role based on the changing needs of our community?


(4) Instead of exclusively focusing on the 4,459 high school graduates in the region, why don’t we better serve the 100,000 working adults with a high school diploma or less?


(5) Is your program in high demand in our region? How might we tweak the program to incorporate credentials that lead to better-paying jobs? What credentials would help people go from making $8 an hour to $15 an hour?


And if you don’t know what are considered high-demand jobs, you should read the Local Workforce Plan by Virginia’s Blue Ridge Works, paying closest attention to pages 3-19.

The plan identifies five existing target industries with high job growth:

  1. Healthcare
  2. Manufacturing
  3. Construction
  4. Transportation and warehousing
  5. Financial services

It also explains three emerging sectors, with a few shout-outs to Virginia Western:

  1. Food and beverage manufacturing
  2. Life sciences
  3. IT

You can drill into the wage data and credentialing requirements here:


I’m looking forward to our Retention Town Hall on Jan. 11 and future meetings to discuss our challenges together.

And while these ideas are percolating, don’t forget about a few grant opportunities that could help turn them into reality. If you’re wondering how you — an individual faculty or staff member — can effect change, a grant can be a first step.

(1) The Paul Lee Professional Development Grant ($2,500 for the summer) and the Paul Lee Workshop Mini-Grant ( $1,500 maximum). Deadline is Feb. 1.

(2) The Educational Foundation’s Innovation Grant applications ($10,000 maximum) are due March 30. (Details)

The grants office would be happy to talk through you ideas. Please note that all proposals must be reviewed by Virginia Western’s Office of Grant Development and Special Projects prior to submission. Please contact Marilyn Herbert-Ashton ( mherbert-ashton@virginiawestern.edu | 857-6372) or myself ( sseagle@virginiawestern.edu | 857-76084) for assistance.

Posted on January 5, 2018

Wait! Before you log off for winter break …

As I’ve emphasized before, ideas — our imagination — are the real power behind grants.

And I collect rando ideas like some people collect Star Wars action figures.

I read like a maniac because it helps stuff my brain with as many ideas as possible — and then, like magic! — some joke or frustration or grant RFP will spark a connection.

Before we peel off for holiday break, I wanted to give you just one link to click.

Just one! And it’s an easy list to skim.

These are the best community college innovations of 2017, as chosen by the League of Innovation in the Community College … and you can find them here.

My hope is that just one of these innovations will get your attention … something might spark an idea.

And it might not be immediately.

Just skim it … no heavy lifting here. I want to put our unconscious selves to work … because while we are sleeping late and reading for fun and traveling and celebrating over the break, our brains will rest.

And a rested brain makes the magic happen.

If we’re really lucky, an entire string of idea bulbs will light up in our collective heads!

When we return in January, I’ll focus more attention on the Educational Foundation’s Innovation Grant.

I have blogged about some previous awards to give you an idea of what your creative colleagues are already doing.

This year’s application is out earlier than usual — and you can find more about how to get it here.

I helped tweak the format to (hopefully) make it easier to apply, and I plan on offering an application workshop early in the spring semester.

Among the most important points to know:

  • All members of Virginia Western faculty and classified staff, including adjunct faculty and part-time employees, are eligible to submit proposals.
  • Requests will be considered up to $10,000
  • Proposals that introduce strategies to improve student retention will receive 5 extra points in the scoring process. (But themes other than student retention are welcome.)
  • The deadline is March 30.

Enjoy the holidays and the time off … I’m looking forward to very creative 2018!

(And if you’ve read this far, then you might also be hungry for more League of Innovation ideas … find the award winners for 2016 and 2015.)

Posted on December 14, 2017

Here’s an idea for the Paul Lee Professional Development Grant. What are yours?

Before we get bogged down in the details of the Paul Lee Professional Development Grant, I thought I’d expound on an idea that I mentioned in a previous blog post.

In “The Power of Moments,” authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath introduced me to the Course Design Institute (CDI), a week-long workshop offered at the University of Virginia.

“The dirty secret of higher education is that faculty aren’t taught how to teach,” said Michael Palmer, an associate professor of chemistry who started the CDI at UVa in 2009.

Here’s a passage from the book that explains the power of this program:

[Palmer] puts the following question to his audience of 25 to 30 professors: “Imagine you have a group of dream students. They are engaged, they are perfectly behaved, and they have perfect memories … Fill in the sentence: 3-5 years from now, my students still know _________. Or they are still able to do _____________. Or they still find value in _________.”

After some brainstorming and listing answers (very few of which are content focused), Palmer then asks the professors to pull out the syllabus they brought to the institute.

“How much of your current syllabus will advance your students toward the dreams you have for them?”

There’s an awkward silence in the room. George Christ, a biomedical engineering professor, remembered the moment with a chuckle: “You look at your syllabus, and you go, ‘Zero’.” Most professors discover exactly the same thing. It’s a head-slapper of a moment.

… The differences between the “before and after” syllabi from the CDI are often striking.

Lucky for us, the authors provide an example of an improved biomedical engineering syllabus on their website: http://heathbrothers.com/cdisyllabi/.

The book reports that 295 instructors participated in CDI through 2015. They rated the workshop a 4.76 out of 5.0 — and all 295 said they’d recommend the course to a colleague. Not bad!

I was intrigued … so I explored the CDI website and learned that the program is open to any instructor — not just UVa faculty. The 2018 sessions include May 21-25 and June 18-22. Registration is $900, and lodging and most meals would be extra. Learn more by watching this video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfzT5iilQWY

And through the CDI website:  http://cte.virginia.edu/programs/course-design-institute/.

I’m curious if there would be any interest from VWCC faculty who would not only attend CDI for their own course, but go with the intention of sharing the same techniques with faculty at Virginia Western? Someone (or some team) willing to host our own version of a course design workshop … folks who would champion student-centered design thinking on our campus?

Perhaps this idea — or a similar one — might inspire you to consider the Paul Lee Professional Development Grant or an Innovation Grant through our Educational Foundation or some other funding alternative.

As always, I’m happy to talk through your ideas and questions.

Now back to the professional development opportunities through the VCCS …

The VCCS offers two types of professional development grants:

  1. The Paul Lee Professional Development Grant, with a maximum stipend of $2,500 for the summer.
  2. The Paul Lee Workshop Mini-Grant, with a maximum award of $1,500.

Last week, I focused on the Workshop Mini-Grant. Today, I’ll spotlight the Paul Lee Professional Development Grant.

Full-time and adjunct VCCS faculty members are eligible. Classified staff may not be primary authors, but may be involved as collaborators and co-applicants.

Faculty may apply individually or collaboratively for time and expenses. Maximum funding for time is eight credits. Most time is funded at three credits. Summer funding for Paul Lee Professional Development Grants is $2,500.

The next deadline is Feb. 1 for projects proposed for the 2018 summer semester.

The VCCS suggests the following topics to get your ideas percolating:

  • Initiatives to enhance student success
  • Discipline-specific project
  • Information literacy
  • Faculty learning communities
  • Student learning communities
  • Initiatives enhancing the use of technology in teaching and learning
  • Best practices in global awareness
  • Pedagogy
  • Leadership development
  • Developmental education
  • Alternative evaluation systems

Eligible projects
The following projects are typically eligible for grant funding:
• Grants supporting research and activities advancing teaching, learning and student success and the mission of the VCCS are eligible, including research; writing professional articles/books (with shared ownership with the VCCS); developing courses not listed in the master course file; collaborative projects with high schools, other higher education institutions or the community; and projects related to VCCS-identified priorities.
• Conference expenses — if they are part of a larger project or activity. Applicants should demonstrate college match for a portion of the costs.
• Travel (domestic and overseas)—approval is dependent upon the purpose, methodology, and justification of costs. Make sure that the travel budget is well researched, detailed, and realistic.

What kind of projects are NOT eligible for funding?
• Professional development activities typically funded by the college, i.e. tuition reimbursement; travel to VCCS-sponsored events; licensures; equipment, supplies, textbooks, and software purchases; student activities funding; normal teaching or administrative duties; and developing courses similar to those in the VCCS master course file.
• Design and development of a web-based course that is already available online (check VCCS Master Course File listing online) will not be funded unless there is a distinctive or innovative component.

More information

To review the online application and learn more about these grants, go to  http://www.vccs.edu/careers/office-of-professional-development/opd-grants-program/

The grants office would be happy to talk through you ideas. Please note that all proposals must be reviewed by Virginia Western’s Office of Grant Development and Special Projects prior to submission. Please contact Marilyn Herbert-Ashton ( mherbert-ashton@virginiawestern.edu | 857-6372) or myself ( sseagle@virginiawestern.edu | 857-76084) for assistance.

Posted on December 11, 2017

Got a workshop idea for the summer? VCCS Paul Lee grant applications due Feb. 1

Pictured: The Instructional Technology Mini-Conference at Virginia Western in July 2016.

I’m hoping you’re as excited about professional development as these folks are, because the VCCS offers two types of professional development grants:

  1. The Paul Lee Professional Development Grant, with a maximum stipend of $2,500 for the summer.
  2. The Paul Lee Workshop Mini-Grant, with a maximum award of $1,500.

Today, I’ll spotlight the VCCS Paul Lee Workshop Mini-Grant.

Dr. Carrie Halpin, Virginia Western’s Instructional Designer and Technologist, has been awarded this workshop mini-grant for the past few years … they have funded her successful summer Instructional Technology Mini-Conferences, which she raved about in our YouTube video, 7 Ways Grants Have Transformed Virginia Western.

The grant pays up to $1,500 to host a workshop that must involve at least two or more VCCS colleges.

The next deadline is Feb. 1 for projects proposed for the 2018 summer semester.

The VCCS suggests the following topics to get your ideas percolating:

  • Innovations in technology, professional activities, and shifting community college roles
  • Future directions for the community college
  • Articulation with public schools and 4-year colleges
  • International education
  • Mentoring part-time employees
  • Student development, assessment, or retention
  • Complete 2021-related topics
  • New relationships between and among community college employees
  • Time management/stress management
  • Promoting pleasant, positive work environments
  • Motivational topics
  • Dealing with change
  • Other topics that meet discipline, instruction, career, or organization needs

Some FAQs from the VCCS:

1. What distinguishes a workshop mini-grant from a professional development grant?
Mini-grants are awarded for day conferences, in-service activities and workshops. Funds are allocated to conduct a meeting, not attend one. Those conducting mini-grant workshops are not eligible for honorariums.

2. Who is eligible to submit a mini-grant application?
All VCCS employees, including adjunct faculty and classified staff, are eligible to submit a mini-grant.

3. What activities associated with mini-grants are eligible for funding?
Mini-grants may be used for all of the following: one or more speakers from outside the VCCS; travel costs for speakers within the VCCS; food and beverage at per diem rates for attendees; and the cost of handouts.

4. Which budgetary items will not be funded?
Speakers actively engaged in the sale of a product and speakers from within the VCCS are not eligible for compensation, and services not connected with an approved budget activity.

Also not allowed:

  • Purchasing classroom, student or software supplies
  • Funding student activities
  • Licensures
  • Workgroup meetings normally supported by colleges
  • Gifts, entertainment and alcoholic beverages.

More information

To review the online application and learn more about these grants at http://www.vccs.edu/careers/office-of-professional-development/opd-grants-program/

The grants office would be happy to talk through you ideas. Please note that all proposals must be reviewed by Virginia Western’s Office of Grant Development and Special Projects prior submission. Please contact Marilyn Herbert-Ashton ( mherbert-ashton@virginiawestern.edu | 857-6372) or myself ( sseagle@virginiawestern.edu | 857-76084) for assistance.

Posted on December 4, 2017

Thanks for sharing your creative Student Success Kit ideas

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Student Success Kits that are mailed to each new student at Western Governors University.

The kits include practical tools to help these students succeed at an online university, including a webcam.

But more importantly, the act of receiving — and unpacking those kits — have become a “peak moment” for these students, as evidenced by numerous posts on social media.

Dan Heath, co-author of “The Power of Moments,” explains why building those peaks is so important in this 4-minute video … (see if you can spot my childhood doppleganger) … and if you liked that video, the next one talks about creating peak moments in schools.

So the Western Governors Student Success Kit got me wondering: What might we include in Virginia Western’s version?

Two of our colleagues were inspired enough to share some suggestions by email. I’ve posted their ideas here with their permission:

Jeffrey Kamal, Academic Link Program Assistant, writes:

I had several ideas for a student success kit. Then I thought more about it and asked myself, “What could VWCC include in a student success kit that’s different from WGU’s and cost-effective?” Here are my ideas so far:

  • VWCC tumbler (for coffee & tea – maybe the coffee shop would agree to give them a discount)
  • Coupons (locations TBD or it could just be for the Domino’s/Coffee/Subway on campus)
  • VWCC planner

And then I tried to think creatively:

  • VWCC flash drive
  • $10 WEPA print card (or maybe $5?)
  • Headphones
  • How about if we took things a step further and mailed the health professions/nursing students a scientific or graphing calculator?
  • Paper items:
    • A small booklet that contains a comprehensive list of study tips
    • Help Desk “bookmarks” on how to connect
    • A guide on how to use WEPA (somebody could create one if it doesn’t already exist.)
    • A doorknob hanger like WGU’s. Maybe there could be a contest where students submit their designs. This was the best I could do so far …

Office supplies: These items are relatively cheap so I am thinking they wouldn’t be so “special” to include in a student success kit:

  • Note cards w/ VWCC logo
  • Pens w/ VWCC logo
  • Mechanical pencils w/ VWCC logo
  • Mini hand sanitizer

Now how do we get the students to actually read the documents included?
Perhaps there could be periodic or weekly emails that say “The first ___ students to submit a study tip from the booklet included in their student success kit will receive a prize of ___/will be entered into a drawing to receive a prize of ___.”

Here are some ideas for renaming the kit:

  • Student Savvy Kit
  • Student Welcome Kit (as in “welcome to VWCC! Whether this is your first semester or second (or more!), we are pleased to have you as a student. We hope you enjoy the following items included in your kit: [list of items]”


That is awesome, Jeffrey! I’m really impressed by how much thought you put into this challenge … and that you actually designed a doorknob hanger!

Heather Derrick, one of our new program coordinators in Workforce, emailed:

I was thinking about holding a Healthcare Workforce orientation night late January 2018 for our four core healthcare programs. A chance to bring all the students together in one room, get them pumped about the upcoming semester, communicate expectations about what it’s going to take to succeed, and also connect them to initial strategies and resources. A Healthcare Workforce Success Kit would be the ultimate take-away! (Especially if I can figure out the scrub voucher thing. We could put a little note in there with their voucher asking them to share a pic in their new scrubs with the hashtag #scrubup!)


So one of the key points from the authors of “The Power of Moments” is that truly outstanding peak moments are personalized, not standardized. And that’s why I really like Heather’s idea. These kits would be specifically tailored for healthcare programs in Workforce … so a Virginia Western Student Success Kit might look different from focus area to focus area, program to program. By giving them out in person at orientation (and by making the event feel special), it would create an exciting social experience that I doubt these students would soon forget. On the academic side, perhaps success kits could become part of the retooled SDV experience?

If you like the idea of creating student success kits — and more peak moments for our college — then I highly recommend the *free* resources on this page, including the first chapter of “The Power of Moments.”

The lessons I’ve learned apply to my daily interactions on this campus … not just highly choreographed moments.

And here are the links to the videos again … [Video 1: Build Peaks, Don’t Fix Potholes … and Video 2: Is Your School All Practice, No Game?] They are worth 8 minutes of your time.

I’ll be discussing a couple more takeaways from “The Power of Moments” in future blog posts, including a successful college course design program that’s in our backyard. The question at the heart of the program is: “What do I want my students to know 3-5 years after the course is over?”

Posted on November 27, 2017

What would you put in a Virginia Western Student Success Kit?

Perhaps this idea has floated around campus before …  but I thought I’d share a noteworthy nugget that popped into my Twitter stream.

Apparently all new students at Western Governors University (WGU) — an online university — are mailed a Student Success Kit at the beginning of their first term. I know this because WGU retweeted one of their students, who wrote:

Finally got my Student Success Kit from @westerngovernorsu and I’m so excited! They definitely understand the need for coffee. I’ve already had some very early mornings and late nights, but I’m loving every minute of school so far. #liquidmotivation #wgu #teacherscollege #momoffour

So what’s inside? The WGU Student Success Kit includes:

  • A webcam for taking online proctored exams (with instructions)
  • Dry-erase whiteboard and marker
  • WGU-branded swag (such as that plastic coffee mug referenced above and a “do not disturb” door sign)

I’m struck by how excited students are when they receive the kit … excited enough to post Instagram and YouTube videos as they unpack their boxes.

Watch one of those “unboxing” videos here:


Besides serving a practical function — giving students the tools they need to succeed with a distance learning program — the kits also create an emotional experience.

Why is this important?

I’m about halfway through The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, the latest book by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, the brothers who wrote best-sellers “Made to Stick,” “Switch” and “Decisive.”

In “The Power of Moments,” the authors explain how the best organizations create defining moments … including moments of pride.

The Heath brothers write:

We all work to improve the experience of the people we care about: the patients we treat, the customers we serve, the students we teach, and the kids we raise. We want to create memories that matter. Great experiences hinge on peak moments. We’ll call them “defining moments”: short experiences that are both meaningful and memorable … Research suggests that organizations dramatically under-invest in building peaks, choosing instead to fill potholes.

Unboxing a student success kit would count as a peak experience to commemorate the beginning of a learning adventure at Virginia Western … which might help with retention.

Now maybe the contents of the WGU kit wouldn’t be right for our students … so I’ll challenge you to brainstorm: What would you include in a Virginia Western Student Success Kit?

And beyond the kits, I’m curious to hear more ideas about creating peak experiences at Virginia Western (which don’t have to cost money).

Email ideas and requests to the borrow this fantastic book: sseagle@virginiawestern.edu.

Posted on November 13, 2017

If Virginia Western were a theme park …

If you’ve ever been in my office in Fishburn, you probably noticed my bulletin board.

Half of it is designated as an “Idea Shelf” — where I jot down creative thoughts to use for later.

The other half prominently features a Busch Gardens park map.

Let me explain.

Months ago, as our office brainstormed through a big grant opportunity, we were discussing the college’s strengths, weaknesses, and wicked problems.

I let my corny humor take over. As legendary ad exec David Ogilvy once said, “The best ideas come as jokes.”

So I started drawing.

When I think about Virginia Western, I immediately think of bridges … especially since we have a giant bridge over Colonial Avenue.

So when I started sketching out bridges to all of our programs and connections with our community, my sketch started to look like a theme park map.

And I love a good theme park. Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Universal Islands of Adventure in Orlando are among my favorites.

Soooo … please forgive my crude doodles, but I tried to imagine Virginia Western as if we were a theme park:

Some questions I had to consider as I drew my map:

  • How would we design our park for maximum enjoyment for the lifelong learner?
  • Should there be multiple entrances?
  • What “lands” would we include, and what are their proportions?
  • What are the signature, standout “rollercoasters” … the ones most visible to the public … the ones we are famous for? Certain degree programs? The FAB LAB?
  • How should we connect the different lands? Do we need more bridges and “sky rides”?
  • How do we help lifelong learners navigate our park — and keep them coming back again and again?
  • How would potential employers / business and industry fit into this park?

Now, of course, I’m NOT trying to turn Virginia Western into an amusement park … (even though some schools are actually installing lazy rivers).

I’m just looking at VWCC — and how we all connect together — in a different way.

Months after my theme park exercise, I read an article that really helped articulate why these kind of metaphors are important.

In “A New Liberal Art,” the Chronicle of Higher Education explores the concept of systems thinking — which emphasizes the relationships between the parts of an organization. My a-ha! moment happened when the article explained “mise en place” (French for “everything in its place”), which chefs use to manage a kitchen.

This is my favorite part of the story:

“The culinarians have a saying: A cook sees his station, and a chef sees the whole kitchen,” says Dan Charnas, a New York University journalism professor and author of Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work and Mind. “Being a chef requires a global vision — the ability to see systems, to see how everything fits together.” The greatest chefs are not just thinking about when to broil the fish, but how the fish relates to the pasta cooking at another station, the food delivery that evening, the fishermen working on the ocean, the changing climate’s impact on the fisheries, and so on.

“If you’ve ever seen some of the chefs graduate and go on to do other things — whether it’s run their own businesses or run consumer-products companies — they take their mise en place with them, because it’s now ingrained in them,” Mr. Charnas says.

Systems thinking can help us better understand Virginia Western — how do each of us and our departments interact with one another to create experiences (good or bad) for our students?

And what would your theme park map look like?


Posted on November 6, 2017

We face wicked problems, personally and professionally. Design thinking can help.

It’s my favorite time of year — Halloween! — so I thought I’d discuss wicked problems.

Wicked problems are complex, social problems that are constantly changing — which are exactly the kind of problems we face at Virginia Western.

Design thinking is a methodology that can help us address these wicked problems (and write grants to tame them). I love this approach because it puts the human — the student — in the center of design.

This means more than just deploying student surveys.

We should be interviewing and observing students, yes, but we should also be going through the same experiences as students and potential students (websites, forms, processes, etc.). Empathy is key, and it’s only the first step.

I’ve been reading about design thinking and creative problem solving for over a decade, so I could shower you with all kinds of information. But I will limit this post to just a few treats, which you can use in the classroom and in your own life:

1. For an overview of how design thinking applies to higher ed: Start with this summary, Using Design Thinking in Higher Education (I especially like the Montgomery Community College example). This more recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Can Design Thinking Redesign Higher Ed?, is behind a paywall. Let me or the library know if you have trouble accessing.

2. For yourself and your students: Check out this bestselling book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, which started as a popular class at Stanford University. Its discussion of wayfinding, the “ancient art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your destination,” influenced one of the college’s recent grant projects.

I plucked out a few highlights:

  • From a story in The New York Times: “The capstone of the Stanford class, and a key part of the book, is an assignment to come up with three ‘Odyssey Plans’ that map out the next five years of your life in radically different ways. The activity is designed to reinforce the sense of multiple viable options, unlock the imagination and eliminate the attractive power of the unknown alternative.”
  • An excerpt from the book: “Our class is one of the few design thinking classes that have been scientifically studied and have proved to make a difference for students on a number of important measures. Two doctoral students did their dissertations on the course, and what they found was pretty exciting. They found that those who took our class were better able to conceive of and pursue a career they really wanted; they had fewer dysfunctional beliefs (those pesky ideas that hold you back and that just aren’t true) and an increased ability to generate new ideas for their life design (increasing their ideation ability). All of these measures were “statistically significant,” which, in non-geek speak, means that the ideas and exercises we lay out in our course and are going to walk you through in this book have been proven effective; they can help you to figure out what you want and show you how to get it.”
  • Video: Author Bill Burnett captures the essence of the book in this TEDxStanford talk.
Posted on October 30, 2017

Let’s ask students: How might Virginia Western boost enrollment and retention?

One of my favorite genres of articles involve creativity in the schools, which are usually about K-12 initiatives that stretch way beyond our standardized-testing mania.

I can’t resist sharing some of my favorite ideas I’ve learned about in the last few months:

  • Grand Rapids Public Museum School, where a struggling school district opened a school *inside* a struggling museum. The museum’s collections are folded into the curriculum, and students learn through hands-on, community-based activities, including a local river-revitalization project. ( More )
  • An outdoors-oriented Forest Kindergarten program at a public elementary school in Georgia, which builds its curriculum around year-long research projects at each grade level. ( More )
  • Tiny Trees, an outdoor preschool program in Seattle, which partners with the city’s parks and recreation program to provide hands-on, nature-based experiences. ( More )

Collecting these kind of innovative ideas is critical to my role in grants, as I’ve explained before.

Just last week, I stumbled upon this article: How Schools Can Stop Killing Creativity (which is really just an excerpt from a new book called “Pushing the Limits.”) I recommend reading the entire story, but there was one nugget, way down in the article, that relates directly to an issue we are struggling with at Virginia Western.

In an effort to boost creative problem-solving skills, a Toronto public high school introduced an “integrative thinking” methodology in a Creative Problem Solving business class.

In one class project, students were challenged to use this methodology to help boost their school’s enrollment. The details of the student solutions are not as important as the simple act of involving students with the problem. 

And we have a problem. For the first time in more than 20 years, Virginia Western’s enrollment has dipped to under 11,000 students. We have a Retention Town Hall scheduled for Jan. 11, where faculty and staff have been encouraged to share ideas on reversing this trend. That’s more than enough time to ask our students.

Asking students to help solve our biggest problems speaks to my beliefs about education beliefs that were ignited during my undergraduate experience at George Mason University. In the mid-1990s, this giant commuter school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.,  introduced a small, liberal-arts-infused program called New Century College (since renamed School of Integrative Studies), which aimed to bridge the classroom with the real world. I was among the very first cohort who experienced an integrative approach that required regular group work from its students, professors from different disciplines team-teaching courses, experiential learning credits, and a senior-year portfolio centered on core competencies (communication, problem solving, critical thinking, etc.). I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Integrative Studies, which allowed me to build an English-leaning degree around my own curiosities. My experience was deeply transformative … it’s probably why I’m writing this now.

The principal of that forward-thinking high school in Toronto sums up my experience quite well:

“[W]hen students are given an opportunity to make a difference—when they have real problems to solve that are connected and related to community and organizations—it ignites a passion for them to engage in their learning.”

Perhaps some of us are willing to give it a try at Virginia Western?

Posted on October 23, 2017

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