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On the Eve of Sabbatical at the Office Academic Innovation: Q&A with Dr. Meghan Duffy

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

A little over four years ago the University of Michigan established the Office of Academic Innovation to foster a culture of innovation in learning at U-M. In creating a new model for academic R&D, we set out to explore bold, mission-aligned, and learner-centric opportunities situated in the context you might expect for a great public research university operating in a world where our understanding of “learner” is happily expanding every day.

To effectively foster a culture of innovation in learning we hoped to equip and empower faculty innovators, reimagine instructional teams for the twenty-first century, and present ourselves to our campus community as thought-partners earned through exemplary service. This model for supporting innovation has evolved quickly, embracing aspects of an internal consultancy, innovation fund, and incubator which, when combined, seems to provide a rather unique approach to academic R&D.

An important part of this evolution is the flexible model we’ve constructed for faculty, staff, and students who seek to engage in academic innovation for different reasons and at different levels of intensity. Focusing on faculty partners specifically, we’ve provided an environment where faculty can collaborate with our team on projects, join or lead communities of practice, and mentor aspiring faculty innovators. We’ve found that some faculty want to engage around a specific project or more broadly around a thematic area such as learning analytics or college preparedness. Increasingly though, faculty look to academic innovation for an open canvas to explore a wider set of ideas and questions. An example of the latter is our first faculty sabbatical at the Office of Academic Innovation supported by our Academic Innovation Fund.

I’m thrilled to welcome Dr. Meghan Duffy to our growing community of positive problem solvers as she gets ready to spend her sabbatical year at the Office of Academic Innovation starting next week. This is a new opportunity for our team to support a faculty innovator with her goals and to engage her in solving for some of our most exciting educational challenges. I had a chance to ask Meg a few questions about the year ahead. Her ideas and goals run cut across our top institutional strategic areas of focus (diversity, equity and inclusion, public engagement, and academic innovation). In our conversation we touched on student mental health, encouraging data literacy in historically underserved communities, supporting faculty interested in public engagement, and, of course, Daphnia!

We are excited to welcome Meg to our team and to explore other opportunities to support faculty who seek to advance their research and teaching and learning through academic innovation. Here’s my exchange with Meg:

1. Can you tell us about your current research interests and any current questions you’re asking about teaching and learning?

I’m an ecologist and evolutionary biologist by training, and my research interests in that area focus on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases. My lab studies little shrimp-like creatures that live in lakes known as Daphnia. We use them to understand why disease outbreaks begin, why they end, and what determines their severity. We use Daphnia for this work both because they’re ecologically important and because they’ve emerged as a model system for understanding infectious diseases. We’ve focused on how the food web influences disease in a particular host species, how global change is influencing disease, and how multiple hosts and multiple parasites interact to drive patterns of disease. I think Daphnia are amazing little creatures that have a lot to teach us and am somewhat of a Daphnia evangelist.

I’ve increasingly begun to do research related to teaching and learning as well. Some of what I’m interested in relates to the main course I teach: introductory biology. I’m interested in understanding students views on ecology, evolution, and climate change when they enter the course and how those views change over time. I’m also very interested in understanding student mental health. Right now, we’re characterizing student mental health and knowledge and use of mental health resources. My goal is to eventually try to understand what we can change — in introductory courses and elsewhere — to improve student mental health. Finally, I’m also working on projects related to pre-college learning and data literacy. I’m interested in understanding how to improve data literacy, especially in historically underserved communities.

2. Why are you choosing to spend your upcoming sabbatical at the Office of Academic Innovation? What questions and activities are you hoping to explore?

I wanted to think of something I could do for my sabbatical that would allow me to do things that I wouldn’t get to do otherwise and stretch me in new directions. As I thought about different options, I realized that the Office of Academic Innovation would be the perfect sabbatical home for me, as it will let me work on projects that I’ve been really interested in but unable to fully dive into before. One of my biggest goals for my sabbatical is to spend more time thinking about how to better support public engagement by faculty. Right now, public engagement by faculty is something they need to do on top of all their other job responsibilities. I would like to think of models that make it so that faculty can choose to make public engagement an official part of their job responsibilities. Second, I’m interested in working on projects related to undergraduate education, including student mental health and learning in introductory biology. Third, I’m interested in working on some projects related to a data literacy activity I developed (with my postdoc Mary Rogalski) and teach to high school students in the Wolverine Pathways Program here at Michigan. I want to think more about how to assess the impact of Prove It, about how to expand it, and about how to effectively encourage data literacy more broadly. Fourth, I am currently working on some initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in ecology and evolutionary biology. I suspect that AI folks will have great ideas about how to improve and scale them. Finally, I am sure that there are things going on in AI that would really interest me but that I don’t know about yet. I’m looking forward to talking with people about other opportunities at AI!

3. The Academic Innovation team is focused on efforts that help U-M to create an open model for pre-college learning and preparation that broadens access and enhances participation. Can you tell us about the Prove-It program and how you are currently thinking about opportunities for pre-college learning?

Student in a computer lab facing a desktop computer with her left arm raised clenched in a fist
Student in the Prove It project “fist pumps” after successfully plotting data for her analysis.

Prove It is a project that I developed in collaboration with a postdoctoral researcher in my lab, Dr. Mary Rogalski. The idea that motivated this activity is that we are all presented with a firehose of information on a daily basis and need skills for processing and understanding that information, but very few people receive formal training in how to do so. To try to address this, we developed an inquiry based activity for high school students centered on using data to address questions they care about. We wanted to help the students develop the skills and confidence needed to critically evaluate information and work with data in the future. We think pretty much all high schoolers could use this training! We decided to work with the Wolverine Pathways program, which works with students from Detroit, Southfield, and Ypsilanti.

Our goal with this activity was to take students through the inquiry process. They had to identify questions, refine them into something that could be addressed with publicly available data, assess whether information was reliable, draw conclusions from their data and present findings in an accessible way. The students asked a wide range of questions — ranging from what effect LeBron James has on his teammates to whether police shootings of unarmed individuals varies by race or ethnicity.

We’re currently revising this activity to teach to Wolverine Pathways students this June and are thinking about how to refine it and improve the assessment we do of its effectiveness. I’d also like to think about how to make the materials we develop more broadly available and how to modify it for different audiences.

4. We are also focused on creating a participatory and inclusive model for public engagement that accelerates the construction and sharing of new knowledge through public dialogue. You recently received the first President’s Award for Public Impact. How would you describe your preferred future of public engagement at U-M?

I definitely share this goal! I’ve thought about this especially in terms of how to better support faculty who are interested in public engagement. I don’t think all faculty should be required to do public engagement, but I think that people who are interested in it should be better supported. One thing I am particularly interested in exploring is whether we can learn from the extension model of land grant universities. While there are differences between states in how extension works, the general approach is finding out what problems are of interest to stakeholders (e.g., farmers, fishermen, etc.) and bringing them information that is relevant to their lives and experiences. This is public engagement! Faculty who have extension appointments have that as part of their formal job expectations and evaluations. I’m interested in exploring whether this model can be applied to public engagement more broadly.

I’m interested in thinking more about how to support others who are interested in public engagement, as well. As just one example: many graduate students are already doing public engagement, but this is often unrecognized. I’m interested in thinking about how we can better support and reward this sort of work.

5. What should Academic Innovation affiliated faculty, staff, and students ask you about while you’re on sabbatical?

Anything they’re curious about! And, if they’re curious about Daphnia, I promise to do my best not to go on about them forever.

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