Last year was an amazing year of achievement for our San Diego State community, and I am excited about our extraordinary opportunity for greater distinction in 2016-17. As we begin the new year, I hope you will take the time to learn more in my video message here.
Tag Archives: Research and Creative Endeavors
It is commonplace to recognize that changes in societal norms and needs, including technological developments, change our academic programs and educational goals. For example, the development of land grant universities – focused on agriculture and technology – in the 1860s reflected the needs of an emerging industrial society. Similarly, the rise of normal schools – San Diego State’s provenance – reflected our society’s need for broad public education in America’s growing democracy of the 19th century.
The ties between specific technological developments and individual fields of study are even more direct. Aerospace engineering degrees emerged with human flight and molecular biology degrees emerged from a constellation of discoveries in genetics and biochemistry.
Clearly, the development of information technology is also producing program developments. The dramatic growth of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in computer science, computer engineering and information systems are three prominent examples.
A more complex question is whether the emergence of multifaceted and ubiquitous information technology should change our broad educational goals. In prior blogs – linked here and here – I have discussed how online learning technologies affect pedagogical approaches and business models in higher education. In this blog, I turn to the question of how these technologies are influencing our broad educational goals and programs.
To consider this issue via analogy, think about how the development of television in the 1950s changed our educational goals and programs. Television (and related media) allowed mass dissemination of information, including mass marketing, at a heretofore inconceivable pace and scope. This mass dissemination of information amplified the importance of the ability to persuade others and of the complementary ability to critically evaluate media messages in our society. Universities responded to this need by incorporating courses on mass communication and critical thinking into their general education curricula and by expanding specific programs in communications; public relations; marketing; and critical studies in ethnic studies, film studies, journalism, and sociology, among other areas.
The widespread availability of computing power and ubiquitous connectivity is also producing significant societal changes. Most dramatically, the reduced cost of information, computing power and other resources accessed through universal connectivity (e.g., 3-D printers), is dramatically democratizing the ability to produce things – products, algorithms, services and ideas. The computing power and information inherent in a watch or hand-held device that costs hundreds of dollars today would have cost hundreds of thousands– even millions – of dollars even two decades ago.
These developments create the possibility of an era of mass customization in which small groups with relatively limited resources become centers of production and innovation. In a dramatic departure from the future envisioned by Marx and Engels, the tie between investment capital and the mechanisms of production has been weakened. To prepare our students for this future, our educational programs must help them develop the abilities necessary to produce things – the abilities to design, collaborate and create.
The evolving notion of “design thinking” is one framework for preparing our students. Broadly defined, design thinking focuses on addressing important problems or challenges, developing collaborations to bring people with different abilities together, simulating or rapid prototyping of solutions to challenges, and iterative testing and refinement of potential solutions. At San Diego State, our Lavin Entrepreneurship Center and our Zahn Innovation Center, with its H.G. Fenton Company Idea Lab, are providing opportunities for growing numbers of students to participate in the design thinking process. Design thinking is but one concept for fostering the abilities and skills our students will need. I know our faculty, staff and students are considering, and will devise, many other academic and co-curricular frameworks as we educate students for a future in which relatively low-cost design and production capabilities are widely available.
It would be possible to imagine, as some have, that a focus on design, production and solving challenges highlights the importance of vocational education and diminishes the importance of a classical liberal arts education.
While there are few things in life that are exact, this surmise is exactly wrong.
Just as synthesis requires prior analysis, so the challenges of design thinking require the classical abilities of critical thinking, quantitative and scientific reasoning, and an understanding of diverse places, times and cultures that are at the heart of a liberal arts education. Meeting challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities presented by our information technology revolution requires taking these classical abilities and applying them in new frameworks of collaboration, synthesis and solution.
The changes in information technology that dominate our contemporary lives are revolutionary, and our education goals and programs must evolve. Yet, even as we embrace new educational approaches, we reaffirm the classical liberal arts education that allows us and our students to understand the implications of these changes and how to respond so we can address our society’s challenges. This is the great opportunity that presents itself at SDSU and throughout higher education.
The arts and sciences present complementary ways of understanding and engaging the world, but both enhance our quality of life and the meaning of our lives – from the powerful insights and emotional experiences produced by great works of art to the profound impact of scientific theories and discoveries in applied disciplines like engineering and medicine.
SDSU has strong traditions in both the arts and sciences, and an innovative group of artists and scientists is taking important steps by exploring the synergies between the two. A great example of these efforts was the recent Phage-Infused Evening of Art. Spearheaded by our distinguished Professor of Biology, Forest Rohwer, this event brought together renowned researchers and artists for a showcase of students’ music and art inspired by the molecular structure of bacteriophages (viruses that kill bacteria). In a scene reminiscent of a SoHo opening – seen in the video here – the University Art Gallery displayed multimedia visual art inspired by phages’ molecular structure, and Professor Joe Waters conducted an original composition based on the fractal patterns in phages’ DNA. The visual art and musical compositions were innovative, dramatic and provocative.
The evening was a fitting start to a spring semester in which we will pursue significant new initiatives in research and creative endeavors. These efforts, part of the implementation of our strategic plan, reflect our community’s ethos that vibrant programs in the arts and sciences are essential elements of the exploration, both of knowledge and ourselves, that characterize a great public university.
These efforts are truly “Building on Excellence.” In the last year alone, Rob Edwards and his colleagues discovered a virus that affects digestion in half the human population, Robert Quimby received the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for work demonstrating that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and Ralph Axel-Mueller and Inna Fishman discovered brain pathways implicated in autism. Similarly, our efforts in the creative arts advanced with a visually stunning performance of “Les Misérables in Concert,” starring Broadway legend Ivan Rutherford, and our Arts Alive SDSU initiative is on track to present visual art, poetry and pop-up concerts to an audience of over 100,000 by the end of the academic year. (In the fall semester alone, more than 50,000 faculty, staff, and students engaged in the arts at SDSU.)
This spring, we take the next steps. We are recruiting a significant cohort of new faculty in the arts and the sciences. These efforts include the Conrad Prebys Chair in Bio-Medical Research, faculty in our areas of research excellence – viromics, clinical and cognitive neuroscience, climate and sustainability, and human dynamics in a mobile age – and artists in musical theater, music, dance and visual art. These new faculty will bring energy and cutting-edge ideas – the lifeblood of the university – to advance our academic and co-curricular programs.
We are also pursuing program innovations and enhancements. These include expanded opportunities for undergraduate students’ research and creative endeavors, new support for faculty in securing grants, enhancement of research facilities and many additional opportunities to highlight our creative work. The phage exhibit runs through Feb. 5 at the University Art Gallery. The Thousand Plates exhibit of food-related art and design will be at the SDSU Downtown Gallery from Feb. 19 through March 30, and our Arts Alive SDSU initiative will bring creative work to the entire campus throughout the semester.
Further, we continue with planning and fundraising for our most ambitious project – the construction of our new Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences Complex. The construction process will begin in July. This project will transform our campus by creating facilities to advance our research, as well as the Thomas B. Day Quad/Courtyard – a central gathering place for our community.
While it is common to highlight the methodological and epistemological differences between the arts and sciences, the deeper commonality that makes both essential is more important. (SDSU artists and scientists discuss that concept in this video.) The arts and the sciences stem from the same fundamental desire to understand and characterize the world, to unlock its mysteries and to capture truths about ourselves and our environment. It is this powerful spirit that guides our efforts in the arts and sciences. I look forward to the excitement and achievement this spring will bring to our campus.
This semester, we began implementing our strategic plan, “Building on Excellence.” Given the importance of broad involvement in the plan’s implementation, I have spent much of the semester discussing the plan with groups of students, faculty, staff, alumni and community supporters. One of the most common questions I receive is “Why have a plan?” or, alternately, “What is the purpose of the strategic plan?”
One answer is a general rationale for strategic planning at a large university, and the second is more specific to contemporary challenges that are restructuring higher education.
Universities are large and complex. There are academic departments, student groups, mechanisms for shared governance, administrative departments, co-curricular programs, auxiliary organizations, alumni organizations, and community supporters, among other groups. A strategic plan enables us to bring all of these resources together, both to capitalize on the opportunities available and to meet the challenges we face. It allows us to identify priorities and to work collectively to accomplish them. In short, it allows us to focus our resources – both human and financial – for results.
In “Building on Excellence,” we identified our central priorities as enhancing student success, research and creative endeavors, and community and communication. For each priority, the plan has identified a set of initiatives to advance the area, as well as relevant measures of progress. Working groups have been formed to help implement the specific initiatives. Moreover, the plan set out revenue initiatives with specific metrics to ensure that we will have the financial resources necessary to invest in our initiatives. The plan’s implementation is off to a good start, and our initial set of investments are described on the strategic planning website.
The rationale for our plan, however, goes well beyond simply enhancing focus and achieving priorities in today’s environment. Public higher education, as an entity, is being restructured. This restructuring is occurring because states have dramatically reduced their investments in higher education and many families face significant financial challenges due to the extended recession and uneven economic recovery. These resource limitations are dramatically enhancing competition between universities and, in some cases, will threaten the very form and existence of individual colleges and universities. Our goal in this highly competitive environment is not just to survive, but to thrive. By providing a roadmap to maintain and enhance the quality of our programs, our new strategic plan ensures that San Diego State will continue to advance in this challenging time.
While our challenges are significant, the communal discussions we have undertaken this fall have sharpened our focus and enhanced our capacity for collective action. This collective action will allow us to advance our initiatives, to accomplish our priorities and, ultimately, to serve our students, faculty, staff, alumni and the broader community. I look forward to reporting on this year’s accomplishments related to the strategic plan, as well as plans for the succeeding year, at the conclusion of the spring semester.