Focus. Passion. Determination.

An artist deeply engaged in the creative process is a common sight on a campus where creativity is part of learning in almost every discipline. He fashions his idea into reality, working the material as if it were a living thing. Slowly, the form begins to take shape, and then in the space of a breath, emerges almost as if from a chrysalis.

This student works in clay; some make their creative mark via performance; others blend traditional art with new forms and media; still others push the very boundaries of technology. Creativity flourishes here, and not just among the students. For years, a succession of faculty and campus leaders at ACU have experimented with new ideas, new ways of thinking, always connecting reflection and experimentation with a creative vision.

Sculpture and art accent the campus and punctuate the merging of research, creative expression, and spirituality that can be seen daily here. Nothing symbolizes the desire to reach further, to strive higher more than Jacob’s Dream, a striking combination of stone, metal, and metaphor near the center of the campus.

This is Abilene Christian University, a small but forward thinking college on the west Texas plains.

For many ACU faculty and students, creativity and innovation come together daily  in the remarkable hub of passion and ideas that is the Brown Library. Home to the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning, the AT&T Learning Studio, and most recently, the ACU Maker Lab, this building has become a nexus of new thinking and prototyping of the university’s future.

The Adams Center is a gathering place for faculty to share insights, raise questions, and think deeply about their own growth, both academically and spiritually. Recent conversations in the Adams Center connected faculty with current work in blended learning. Others were part of a reading group on gender in the Academy; still others explored ways to fund undergraduate research. Dr. James Langford, the first director of the Adams Center, was an early mentor to many. Looking back over his work at ACU, he commented:

The ability of ACU’s faculty and staff to focus on creative solutions over institutional structures is surprising … There will always be a divide between those whose primary concern is technology and those whose task is educating students. I believe that bridging that divide is absolutely essential if we are to leverage digital innovations to impact student learning. 

The AT&T Learning Studio, upstairs in the library, offers students a similar creative hub. Students come to the Learning Studio to jump-start a collaborative project, check out professional media equipment, or sit in on software training for an upcoming media project. Faculty work with Learning Studio staff to develop content or revise assignments for their own courses.

Most recently, the library welcomed the Maker Lab, providing ACU with a campus workshop that merges art, science, technology, and creativity in completely new ways. Students and faculty come to the Maker Lab to learn and use 3D printers, laser cutters, and other fabrication tools. Principles of design, engineering, entrepreneurship, and many other disciplines come together as essential elements in the creative process.

 

With a student body of about 4,400 students, ACU’s size is a strategic asset. It’s large enough to marshal impressive resources, but small enough to get decision makers from across campus around the table.

In the last half-dozen years, these divisions have spawned a surprising number of visionary projects for university's twice its size.

In 2007, faculty and technologists in the Adams Center wrote a vision document that explored the impact of new mobile devices on the college campus. Faculty designers worked with student filmmakers to imagine mobile learning platforms for a range of classrooms. In response to the film’s vision, ACU developers designed a mobile portal and classroom engagement tools just in time for a campus-wide mobile deployment in 2008. Mobile research fellows focused their attention in later semesters on studies of mobile media retention, custom textbook creation, along with utility in assessment, creative production, and study abroad programs.

In 2009, faculty increasingly comfortable with mobile media creation began looking for the tools to support a generation of media natives in their teaching. The library brought together faculty from English, communication, foreign language, art, and design, and in 2011 the AT&T Learning Studio opened its doors to the campus. With on-site support for media projects and hands-on workshops, the Learning Studio worked with students and faculty across campus to develop the skills and confidence they needed to share their stories, research, and advocacy with audiences beyond the Abilene campus.

In 2013, faculty in design and engineering were looking for ways to give their students access to 3D fabrication technologies. At the same time, the library leadership was evaluating the potential of a makerspace on campus and saw in the “maker” movement a compelling model for student learning by doing. In-depth discussions with faculty and students followed, and leaders from the Learning Studio and the Adams Center captured this emerging vision for the campus in a short feature documentary, filmed that spring. We Are Makers helped shape campus vision and continues to play a part in conversations about the role of making in education in more than 130 countries.

About ACU

In 2006, Abilene Christian University celebrated its first century as a center of research and creativity on the open plains of West Texas. Its 4,400 undergraduate and graduate students are drawn from 37 nations.

In addition to its main campus in Abilene, ACU students gain valuable experiences at international campuses in England, Germany, and Uruguay as well as a new site in downtown Dallas working directly with CitySquare and its mission to fight the root causes of poverty. In the last year ACU at Citysquare students have introduced Design for Change programs into the Dallas Independent School District and conducted research into problems of food deserts and clean water access.

ACU students engage global problems as well. In 2009, students founded the Red Thread Movement to raise awareness of sex trafficking by selling bracelets on college campuses across the country, and continue to partner with other non-profits to turn awareness into action for young women around the world.

ACU’s undergraduate research programs provide student mentoring support in a wide range of projects. Physics majors regularly travel to summer internships at national labs in Los Alamos and Brookhaven, while vocal performance majors in opera have performed with faculty in Avignon. One recent study receiving national attention was led by Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker in Psychology looking at the impact of LEGO packaging on young women interested in STEM-related careers.

As the university steps deeper into its second century, ACU’s students and faculty continue to challenge themselves to live lives of purpose.

Design Thinking
Jacob’s Dream
LEGO Research
 

Learning Studio Voices

Learning Studio Programs

Reflections

by Kyle Dickson

All good universities strive to support students and faculty in their work, but it is all too easy for educational technology leaders to frame their mission in customer terms rather than as a series of true collaborations. In each of the projects spotlighted here, ACU leadership invited faculty and students into the process early, included them as conversation partners and decision-makers rather than focus groups. When possible, this included course release time and stipends,which allowed for extended periods of focus, as well as the development of new faculty interests and skill sets that could be leveraged in future projects.

At key stages, leading voices in the NMC and groups like ECAR have reminded us that tomorrow’s big idea may not appear on the five-year plan. The executive leadership at ACU in academics and operations joined forces to support the research of new pedagogies and platforms at the university. Campus leaders invested regularly in traditional faculty research fellows as well as more experimental R&D support, creating institutional sandboxes like the Learning Studio where early adopters and educational technologists work side-by-side to explore new models and tools.

ACU’s project teams have rarely limited themselves to on-campus expertise. A timely phone call with the University of Mary Washington gave ACU system administrators confidence to build mobile learning tools on an open source blogging platform. Visits with librarians and IT leaders at Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara universities informed learning space design teams back in Abilene. Interviews with innovation leaders from higher education, museums, and industry start-ups were captured in film projects to be digested and disseminated back to key decision makers.

When the Learning Studio opened in 2011, our original mission was simple: we wanted ACU graduates to write well, speak well, and share their messages with a digital world. That work was built on our involvement in the NMC and a rich community of educators and visionaries who have regularly spoken into our work. Together the NMC has made new media a powerful platform for so much of what comes next.

Credits

Photo Credits
Video Credits
Narrative
Nathan Driskell
Technical Lead
Producer