Remarks at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching's 50th Anniversary Celebration
Food, Farms and Freshmen: Satisfying the Hunger for Exceptional Undergraduate Education
May 4, 2012
I want to begin today by talking about Michigan State.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the historic Morrill Act, and Michigan State University would lead the way as the nation’s first land-grant university.
But not before a lot of debate and acrimony between East Lansing and Ann Arbor.
Agriculture was the currency of the day, and the farmers of Michigan wanted a dedicated agriculture school. The best way to teach farming, they said, is to farm. And that should take place at a university focused on the stuff of agriculture – seeds and soil, livestock and weather.
Nonsense, countered the academics here at the University of Michigan. What better environment for learning than a comprehensive institution that exposes students to philosophy, religion, law and the like. The more varied a man’s education, the better. To equate the life of the mind with the rigors of manual labor was, well, insulting.
Well, the farmers won, and the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan was born.
This was MSU’s first victory over Michigan. And the arguments made by both sides nearly 160 years ago are more relevant than ever.
For today’s college students to learn and grow as productive citizens, they must be engaged – truly engaged. That means teaching methods that integrate the intellectual and the practical, that blend the lecture and the application of those lessons.
In short, students must experience what they learn.
Michigan and Michigan State have evolved into major universities with national and global impact. The same can be said of the institutions represented here today: every Ivy League university, all members of the Big 10, the University of Chicago, and colleges from throughout our state.
All of us teach undergraduates. Today, let’s talk about how to do it better.
I view undergraduate education, and its value to society, through three different prisms.
As the graduate of a small liberal arts college.
As the president of a major research university, one that commits more dollars to research than any other public university in the nation.
And as chair of the Association of American Universities and the preeminent institutions it represents.
I want to offer some observations and ideas about undergraduate education for our program today and, hopefully, for later discussions on your campuses.
All of us here joined the academy because we love knowledge. We have the best jobs in the world. We are in the business of discovery. No other job description matches that of an academic.
It is our obligation – and privilege – to encourage and celebrate this love of learning with students new to college. First-year students who often have no idea what they want to do with their lives. They are the young people who will be tomorrow’s accountants, senators, librarians, teachers and scientists. And an array of professionals we can’t yet anticipate today in 2012.
My colleague Hunter Rawlings, president of the AAU, is putting all his energy into improving undergraduate education. He rightly says the college classroom is “where we meet the American public most directly.”
That public is demanding improvement and change, and we must respond.
To accomplish this, and to give undergraduate education an overhaul for the 21st century, we need to both think deeply and farm vigorously.
I do not want to give the impression that our research universities fail at undergraduate teaching. Quite the opposite. We attract the best students and the best faculty, and together they make for classroom and laboratory experiences that are unparalleled.
But we must elevate and expand those experiences. Learning must encourage and develop creativity. It needs to be global. And to be truly effective, how students learn and how faculty teach must be measured, evaluated and rewarded by the very universities that say undergraduate teaching is important.
Let’s start with food.
If an army marches on its stomach, perhaps undergraduates learn best through food.
Some of our best teaching ideas at Michigan are in action where they matter most: the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. It is the intellectual heart of the University and home to more than 17,000 undergraduates.
It is here where students were recently exposed to an innovative course called “22 Ways to Think About Food.”
Over the course of a semester, Professor Phil Deloria immersed his students in food through a multitude of liberal arts disciplines. Anthropology, physics, philosophy, communications, politics, language, economics.
Professor Deloria brought in 22 diverse faculty colleagues to share their knowledge and insight with students. Each had something to say about hunger, consumption, diet, culture and more.
To say the course is about food is a red herring of sorts. What’s really being taught is critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving.
Call it food for thought.
It’s part of a new undertaking we call the Sophomore Initiative. That second year of college is so often when students wrestle with the direction of their education.
They’ve made the transition from high school and cleared the hurdles that naturally present themselves with being freshmen. Sophomore year is when students are up to speed, when they are thinking hard about the future, and when the possibilities suddenly open up.
If we can grab them at that moment with the right stuff, their minds take off.
We want to engage them, build their creativity and show them the intellectual depth and rigor of the academy.
Research universities, in particular, are in a tremendous position to give our undergraduates an education unlike anywhere else. The talent and resources – in medicine, engineering, public policy, social science – all of this should inform and inspire undergraduate teaching, not operate in isolation from it.
This is why the AAU is committed to improving undergraduate teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It’s why here at Michigan, we are putting more emphasis – and more money – than ever on pulling together these resources for the benefit of our undergraduates, in STEM fields, the humanities and beyond.
There are different names for today’s teaching. Immersive learning. Intellect in action. Engaged learning.
It means more team teaching and more faculty willing to collaborate. Flipped classrooms and courses that cross academic boundaries. Creative performances and service learning. More programs that integrate coursework, fieldwork and service.
It’s learning that is engaging and active. It’s how we must teach to produce graduates with the confidence to innovate, be entrepreneurial and re-invent themselves.
We must do all of this, and we must do so with the world in mind.
Let me introduce you to some Michigan students.
They are visiting hospitals, observing the exhilarating, exhausting world of obstetrics and gynecology.
They see babies being born. They watch pregnant women undergo surgery, sometimes in emergency situations.
Later, they are in clinics. They talk with doctors, nurses, midwives and patients. They hear both pain and joy.
The University of Michigan has an exceptional medical school and hospital. But these young people I am talking about are not medical students. And they may, in fact, never go to medical school.
These are undergraduates. And they are learning firsthand how to design effective, affordable medical technologies.
To develop a medical device that truly works, it’s essential to involve the people who will use it. Seven out of 10 devices imported to developing countries – which must import almost all their medical equipment – do not work once they arrive.
That is why Professor Kathleen Sienko has her students meet with pregnant women, talk with midwives, and immerse themselves in the communities where these devices will be used.
In this particular scenario, the students lived, learned and worked in Ghana. They were required to create devices that would be safe for both mother and baby, that were easy to use, and that could be built locally and affordably. They took coursework in engineering, entrepreneurship and Ghanaian culture.
This is powerful teaching. It’s global, it encourages students to think outside their comfort zone, and it’s hands-on.
Most important, it advances the public good.
“I learned how to design a product well,” said one student, “but also took away an extreme appreciation for the capacity that a well-engineered product can have on society.”
Thank you, Professor Sienko.
We know from research that students respond to these types of high-impact courses. They want active, engaging, collaborative challenges, whether in the classroom or in the field.
My experience as an undergraduate was pivotal, but my guess is not atypical for the time. I had a wonderful array of liberal arts courses to choose from, in addition to my studies as a chemistry major. I studied abroad for several weeks. I worked in a lab, and had influential faculty mentors. I prepared for graduate school by memorizing facts, writing reports from published literature and taking examinations to test my knowledge, all in the cocoon of an idyllic campus.
There was virtually no opportunity to apply what I was learning to any real-world issues or challenges.
It was an excellent education for the early 1960s, but somewhat static and insular by today’s needs.
Today, we must embrace the philosophy of Michigan alumnus and Google co-founder Larry Page. “Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.”
This is because the world itself, the one our graduates are entering, has become both uncomfortable and exciting. It is a world with more volatility and less certainty.
Our graduates must be able to work effectively with others who are different from themselves and in settings that are much different than anything they’ve experienced. This is not a luxury, but rather a requirement for personal and global prosperity.
As U-M president, I am eager to praise Professor Sienko for her program in global health design. As an institution, we have also thanked her with awards for innovative and exceptional undergraduate teaching.
Innovation in teaching is not about technology, but rather creativity.
I hope your institutions place a premium on creativity. We do. We try hard here at Michigan to promote and reward strong pedagogy and effective outcomes.
I could stand here for 20 more minutes and list the prizes, awards and incentives we offer for good teaching. We do a lot, but I also believe we can do more.
What matters is that we – as departments, schools and colleges, and institutions of higher learning – validate and reward exceptional teaching.
All of us have a role.
Developing and teaching innovative courses is the work of the faculty.
Funding and rewarding new models of pedagogy is the responsibility of the university.
That is why we are here today, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. It was the first higher education teaching center in the world, and it continues to be the model.
While its mission is to promote excellence and innovation at this university, its impact is much, much broader. Faculty and administrators from more than 100 colleges throughout the world turned to CRLT for support in the past year alone.
The resources offered on CRLT’s website draw more than 275,000 unique visits from 200 countries. It’s quite remarkable.
It demonstrates the absolute hunger to improve teaching. Maybe this is why I was compelled to talk about teaching in the context of 21st century food and 19th century farming.
I opened with some Michigan State history, so I will close with a chapter from the University of Michigan’s rich heritage.
One of the great thinkers in the history of American education was the philosopher John Dewey.
The University of Michigan was his first stop after receiving his doctorate, and he spent a decade here shaping both students and ideas. He gained a reputation as a challenging but fair teacher, and rose through the ranks to chair the Department of Philosophy.
He also found time to ponder a question posed by Michigan students more than 100 years ago: What should I expect of a college education?
His answer was complex. That’s to be expected of a philosophy professor.
He stressed the value of losing one’s provincialism and exploring different thoughts and cultures. Equally important, he said, is learning to set aside partisan ideas. He felt it essential to exercise patience before jumping to conclusions or taking sides.
There is nothing weak, he said, in suspending judgment and collecting the facts.
But the most critical component of a higher education, he told students, is to take all you have learned and find ways to apply that knowledge to being an ethical human being.
Without connecting your studies to the very essence of human nature – emphasis on human – your work as a student is simply a random collection of intellectual bits and pieces.
John Dewey was thinking ahead. The university of the 21st century must advance knowledge by preparing students to be open-minded, flexible and interconnected with their fellow citizens.
That work begins with a student, a teacher and a germ of an idea. That work begins with us.