Innovation -- Grand Challenges sparking new partnerships and projects that make the School's culture more interdisciplinary


At UW–Madison’s School of Education, innovation is a way of life. In our classrooms, in our research and even in our spare time, we are creating knowledge and seeking ways to improve and transform lives across fields as diverse as the arts, health and education.

In this issue of “Learning Connections,” we hope to pique your curiosity and deepen your appreciation of the School by spotlighting a sampling of the many ways in which faculty, staff and students are developing creative programs, conducting leading-edge research and advancing innovative tools — all of which can help us better address the many challenges of the modern world.

Grand Challenges sparking new partnerships and projects
that make the School’s culture more interdisciplinary

The UW–Madison School of Education launched a Grand Challenges initiative earlier this year that’s designed to form and fund interdisciplinary teams to address critical problems that span education, health and the arts.

In September, eight teams competing in the inaugural Grand Challenges Engage initiative were selected to receive a combined $200,000 to carry out the Wisconsin Idea on behalf of the School of Education over the next two years. These award winners were selected from 14 proposal teams representing 55 faculty, staff and community members.

Cover of Fall 2017 Learning ConnectionsWhile the grant dollars — made possible with support from UW–Madison’s Office of the Provost, the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and donors — supporting these projects are important, the unique aspect of Grand Challenges is the initiative’s ability to help faculty make connections across areas of expertise and to make the School’s culture more interdisciplinary.

Such resources and efforts, notes Richard Halverson, stamp Grand Challenges as Dean Diana Hess’ signature initiative.

“The Dean wants to support the talent of the School of Education staff to make a bigger difference in the world,” says Halverson, who directs Grand Challenges and is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

After taking over as dean of the School of Education in August 2015, Hess was seeking ways to build on the innovative research and programs of the School. She invited the Wisconsin Collaborative Education Research Network (The Network), under the direction of Jack Jorgensen and Halverson, to design an initiative that would engage campus and community partners in groundbreaking work. Sarah Archibald joined the Network in July 2016 to co-design and co-lead Grand Challenges, which launched in February 2017.

“Grand Challenges is part of the School of Education’s innovation strategy,” Halverson says. “The Grand Challenge process is about making new connections so that faculty and staff can envision new directions for their work. We feel that it is helping to create the conditions where people from different corners of the School are coming together and seeing each other as collaborators.”

Indeed, a sampling of Engage projects receiving funding highlights how people with different backgrounds and interests are working together on cutting-edge ideas and initiatives.

Glassblowing for Individuals with Parkinson’s Disease –- One project will explore the feasibility of utilizing the art of glassblowing as a therapeutic intervention for individuals with Parkinson’s disease. Art Department Assistant Professor Helen Lee and Department of Kinesiology Assistant Professor Kristen Pickett are co-leading this project, which allows them to test utilizing glassblowing as a new form of arts-based therapy

CCBCDeepDive• CCBCDeepDive Digital Research Library (CCBC-D3) Pilot Project ­-– The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), known internationally for groundbreaking work on children’s literature, is teaming with data analytics experts from UW-Madison’s Computer Sciences Department to study how race, ethnicity, gender, plot, location and character types vary across children’s books. This project includes collaborators: KT Horning, director of the School of Education’s CCBC; Brenda Spychalla, co-CIO for the School of Education; Miron Livny, a world renown UW-Madison computer scientist; and Lauren Michael of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.

• What the Moon Saw: Interactive Performance Research -- Dan Lisowski and Shuxing Fan from the School of Education’s Department of Theatre and Drama are working with leaders from the Children’s Theater of Madison, the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and UW-Madison’s School of Human Ecology to develop an interactive performance project. “What the Moon Saw” will be designed to engage young audiences in live theatrical performance through the use of video gaming and interactive technology.

While discussing the Engage grant proposals, a School of Education faculty member who served as an anonymous review panelist noted, “This is cutting-edge work that will have a profound impact on teaching and learning.”

The various unique partnerships didn’t happen by accident. After the kickoff event in February drew more than 200 faculty, staff and students from across the School, the Grand Challenges team held several “meet-ups” where faculty, staff and community members with similar interests met to make new connections. There also were “Spark Dinners” that provided an opportunity for teams of diverse expertise to move toward proposals.

“It can be challenging to become innovative when you have so many different ways of thinking at the table,” says Halverson. “In the School of Education we have 10 departments. We wanted to break people out of their siloed approach by inviting them to consider pathways for working together.”

Adds Halverson: “Our goal was to create opportunities for people to interact socially around their ideas. So far, I think we’ve done a good job of creating the conditions where people can get to know each other and then see each other as possible collaborators. The best ideas happen when smart people get a chance to meet and talk with one another and move their work to the next level.”

Taucia Gonzalez
Taucia Gonzalez, a faculty member with the Department of
Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, stands
next to a poster representing a recently funded initiative,
"Exploring and Realizing the Equitable Inclusion of 
Immigrant Parents in Educational Policy- and Decision-
Making." The Grand Challenges team hosted an Engage
Poster Fair Aug. 31 in the Education Building's Morgridge
Speaking of that next level, Halverson says that four of the groups that received Engage grant support are already drafting related proposals for potential funding via the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Endowment of the Arts and the U.S. Department of Education.

Meanwhile, the Grand Challenges initiative has now moved on to the Transform Phase and is accepting proposals for Transform Grants of up to $250,000 each. Transform will support two to three teams to develop solutions for big problems in education, health care and the arts, establish new programs for community impact, and explore revolutionary ideas through interdisciplinary projects. Transform proposals are due Feb. 1.

“I am so impressed by the collaboration and innovation the Grand Challenges initiative has sparked across the School of Education,” says Hess. “We are successfully facilitating new alliances for faculty and staff across departments, with other schools, and with community partners.”

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