As is often the case, a number of factors converged to evolve into what has become Student Think Center. Several strategic planning efforts were unfolding at the institutional level that, in part, addressed student satisfaction and success, learning spaces design, and several aspects of learner support. Staff at the Learning Enhancement Center (LEC) approached the LEC Director and Associate Provost (who had been key personnel with the previous Title III grant) to offer some ideas for a large-scale proposal. With the completion of its prior Title III grant in 2006, USM was able to re-apply for another Title III, Part A grant in 2008. Development of the project themes began during 2007 and the proposal was submitted in May 2008.
Ideas and Inspiration
Years ago, our instructional specialist was introduced to the concept of “design thinking” and to the design firm IDEO by a faculty member. She was working with a variety of instructors as the Learning Enhancement Center’s instructional designer at the time, and the idea immediately resonated with her for use in instructional systems. Further research into design thinking revealed it to be a potentially compelling method for enhancing the processes involved in developing effective instruction and to respond to constantly shifting influences.
The idea simmered and continued to form as she learned more and searched to connect design thinking and higher education. Although there are many definitions for design thinking, we can apply it learning situations when we creatively identify a need or problem, consider possible solutions, implement new strategies, assess whether they are effective, and make adjustments as needed. When the project directors began discussing concepts for the 2008 Title III program competition, the notion of design thinking emerged again. Other needs were also considered, including individual student support based on cognitive styles and preferences and learning space design. Ultimately these were connected and the “Student Think Center” was conceived.
Strategic Planning at USM
At the time we began compiling our proposal, our president, Dr. Martha Saunders, was in her first year in office. Near the end of 2007, members of the university community had participated in Community and Campus Dialogues, Phase I of USM’s strategic planning initiatives. Among the themes and values that emerged during long-term planning were removing barriers to student success, offering services for a variety of students, as well as improved technology and faculty and staff development and support.
Early in 2008, Phase II of strategic planning saw the formation of the Strategic Planning Committee and the Strategic Enrollment Planning Council, which engaged Noel-Levitz to integrate the institutional mission and goals with how it serves its current and future students within a changing marketplace. While our project is not engaged in recruitment or admissions, it connected to the persistence, graduation and satisfaction indicators in strategic enrollment planning.
Simultaneously, the Hattiesburg Master Campus Facility Plan was nearing completion. Planning principles of this 10 year plan, recognized the importance of creating and promoting environments for learning, research, and social engagement, and of creating a “modern campus” which integrates current and emerging technology in campus design. The staff at the Learning Enhancement Center (LEC) is deeply engaged in researching, exploring, and providing instructional technology and tools to the campus. Furthermore, we had been involved in learning space design through the Director’s service on Space Allocation and Utilization Committee, Hattiesburg Master Facility Planning Committee, Gulf Coast Cross Creek Master Campus Facility Plan, and through member projects for the Society for College and University Planning and Educause Learning Initiatives.
We embraced the principles that surfaced from each of these institutional initiatives and easily identified how our project ideas could help facilitate many of the tenets they set forth. The Student Think Center is a multi-modal approach using design thinking to provide individualized student support, faculty development, and flexible learning spaces.
The Strengthening Institutions Program
The proposal was written and submitted to national competition under the U.S. Department of Education’s Title III, Part A Strengthening Institutions Program (SIP). According to http://www2.ed.gov/programs/iduestitle3a/index.html, the Strengthening Institutions Program provides “funds to improve and strengthen the academic quality, institutional management, and fiscal stability of eligible institutions.” Initially, we were required to apply for and receive designation as an eligible IHE. We subsequently submitted our proposal for an individual development grant.
Educational grants are often research-oriented or projects which can be replicated on a national scale. The Strengthening Institutions Program is unique in that it addresses specific needs of eligible institutions and has a broader scope of allowable activities. Our proposal aims to improve student achievement through student development, faculty engagement, and learning space design.
We submitted our proposal in May 2008, and although our reviewer scores were high, we did not receive an award during that year. The Department of Education did not hold an open grant competition in 2009; instead, the Secretary of Education used the grant slate developed in FY 2008 to allocate new awards in 2009. Since the projects had already been subjected to the peer-review process, we were not permitted to revise or update the original proposal. Applicants who had not received funding during the 2008 competition but had earned high scores during the review process were allowed to re-apply for eligibility designation. Our scores were sufficient, and after our eligibility was established, we were awarded funds totaling $1.95 million over a five-year period beginning October 2009.