Academically-Focused: Academic Rigor, Living Laboratories

The days of sitting in a college classroom for an hour while a professor lectures are gone. Today’s students expect a robust
learning environment that extends beyond the classroom. This fresh, new approach is changing how UM professors teach – and even where they teach – as classrooms convert into living laboratories and partnerships are developed that take students from all academic disciplines off campus and into the community for internships, mentoring and professional experiences.

“Today’s students want to be in the classroom to pick up the theory in the professional discipline, but once that theory is learned from the textbook or from the professor, they will move to application and hands-on, where they can learn auditorily, visually and tactilely,” said UM President Timothy L. Smith.

As University of Mobile responds to marketplace demands, it has a distinct advantage: UM delivers an education that goes far beyond simply providing the knowledge and skillset needed for a job.

It is “Higher Education for a Higher Purpose,” a journey of intellectual development and spiritual formation that integrates faith and learning forthe purpose of fulfilling one’s professional calling.

It is academic rigor and practical application founded on a biblical worldview.

The Challenge
As innovative teaching methods challenge students at a deeper level, they also pose a challenge for institutions like University of Mobile.

“The challenge that any institution faces today within academia is that in order to move forward, whether it’s aesthetically or program-wise, you must have resources. As we evaluate our academic program and line it up with the workforce needs of the community, we are also looking at how we begin to obtain those resources – not just financial, but also in faculty, staff and facilities,” Smith said.

Increasingly, universities are building components on campus specifically to meet student expectations for a varied learning environment. Living laboratories can take many forms, such as a performance hall on campus that brings the community to UM for concerts and theatre productions, or an operating room that allows anesthesia students to have the same experiences on campus as in a hospital.

The new Center for Excellence in Healthcare Practice is the first of what will be many more living laboratories in UM’s growing College of Health Professions, the umbrella for the School of Nursing, School of Health and Sports Science, and School of Allied Health. In the lab on the second floor of Weaver Hall, a professor programs state-of-the-art patient simulator mannequins to experience a medical emergency such as a heart attack, and students must quickly apply the knowledge they learned in the classroom to stabilize the “patient.”

It is one piece of a healthcare education puzzle that could one day include an anatomy lab where students can put their hands on an actual heart and gain an intimate understanding of flow dynamics, the heart muscle, and how normal physiology can abnormal.

“We know what we want to accomplish. We know that’s what Christ is calling us to do. But we must find the faculty, we must find the facilities. Those are some of the initial challenges – not challenges that can’t be overcome, but challenges of patience and of looking five and 10 years down the road, and how you keep building. Every year builds on itself. And that’s exactly where we’re heading,” Smith said.

How it Works
The Center for Performing Arts provides a familiar illustration of the new pedagogy, and how the university’s recent organizational restructuring better defines the process.

“When you take what used to be the Center for Performing Arts and rename it the Alabama School of the Arts with the Roger Breland Center for Performing Arts, what we basically did was take the didactic portion and say, ‘This is the Alabama School of the Arts; this is the classroom.’

“Then we took those same students and said, ‘Now let’s apply what’s happening in the classroom, and let’s go out on the stage, let’s go out to the churches, let’s go out to the community – to the world. And your living laboratory now is the Roger Breland Center for Performing Arts. We send hundreds of students out throughout the year, presenting hundreds of concerts and performances,” Smith said.

Stepping it Up
These experiences and others across academic areas are now part of a bigger picture – one in which the entire university is stepping up its emphasis on experiential learning. Just a few of the many new initiatives include:

• Liberal Arts Strategic Employment Requirements – or LASER – that requires all majors in the College of Arts and Sciences to have a 3-credit-hour internship, senior-level Capstone experience, or honors thesis.

• All majors in the School of Business are required to complete three credit hours in an internship, study abroad, or applied learning course such as Enactus. New programs like The Business Breakdown are bringing business leaders to campus to share their professional and personal journeys with UM students preparing to enter the workforce.

• Mentorships and discipleships for faculty, staff and students across the disciplines are being developed through the School of Christian Studies

• The new May semester term, or May-mester, creates opportunities for study abroad coursework and mission projects through UM’s new Office for Global Engagement.

Biblical Worldview
“At the end of the day, there is an underlying foundational platform that gives us the reason why we take care of those patients, and gives us reason to interact at different levels throughout a company, and that’s the biblical worldview. There are not many institutions in the country focused on that perspective,” Smith said.

“Most institutions are about forming students’ cognitive development and sending them out to figure out the word. For us, we want them to figure out the world before they get out there.”

About the Author

Kathy Dean

Kathy Dean uses her passion for storytelling and "playing with words" to share the stories of people, place and purpose that make the University of Mobile unique. As associate vice president for university communications, she manages media relations, edits the TorchLight alumni magazine, and oversees university communications. A former award-winning journalist, she is a two-time recipient of the Baptist Communicators Association grand prize for feature writing. Kathy and her husband, Chuck, live with three extremely loud miniature schnauzers.