Creating Space for Creativity, Collaboration, and Community: The GEMnasium

In the fall of 2017, IACT expanded its community-based approach to learning by launching the GEMnasium, a “collaborative hands-on ‘test lab’ that provides spaces for UD students, faculty, staff and regional partners to prototype new teaching and learning models for servant-leadership and social innovation” (University of Dayton, 2018b). GEM stands for “Growth Education Mindset” and references the Gem City nickname for the city of Dayton, Ohio. The location designated for the GEMnasium, once a storage space, was reconfigured to foster collaboration and serve as a “playground for the mind.” A large custom-made dinner table serves as the centerpiece of the space, representing the Catholic Marianist tradition that everyone has a place at the table.

In the GEMnasium, community members are invited to work collaboratively with University faculty as courtesy faculty, serving an active role in curriculum development and the GEMnasium educational and wellness experience. This model is designed to level potential power imbalances, with community, faculty, staff, and students learning and working together. All of the faculty' engaged in the GEMnasium are committed to adapting their curriculum to focus on a common humanity-based issue, or “Grand Challenge.” As described by' President Barack Obama in his Strategy for American Innovation, “Grand Challenges arc ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems, and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination” (Obama White House Archives, 2019, para. 1). In the GEMnasium’s case, these problems were focused at the local level. In this way, the GEMnasium serves as an anchor for community collaboration to address long-standing problems, allowing collaborators within the space (representing both the University and the Dayton community) to take on the roles of facilitator, leader, and convener, as identified by Axelroth and Dubb (2010). This approach provides a new perspective on Axclroth and Dubb’s community' engagement roles taxonomy, in that the university, in collaboration with partners, created the space and structure for these roles to be pursued by groups composed of individuals from both outside and within the University.

The GEMnasium draws on two ideas in infusing transdisciplinarity throughout this space: (a) Augsburg’s (2014) approach which placed the focus on an individual’s experience and knowledge for a collective effort and action and (b) the approach of the T. H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, in which: “research efforts conducted by investigators from different disciplines working jointly to create new conceptual, theoretical, methodological, and translational innovations that integrate and move beyond discipline-specific approaches to address a common problem” (Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, 2019, “Transdisciplinary

Research,” para. 1). In three academic semesters, the GEMnasium has had 847 students participate. This participation has included 41 sections of courses representing 18 different disciplines taught by 22 faculty members and 11 instructors of record. More than 100 community partners have engaged in some way over the course of this time.

In spring 2018, the GEMnasium drew on this transdisciplinary approach to engage stakeholders throughout the region in exploration and investment related to the opioid epidemic. Nine courses in mechanical engineering, production management, health and sports sciences, religion and medical ethics, applied theater, teacher education, and community service created collisions (the interaction of ideas) of curriculum with GEMnasium courtesy faculty who had deep experiential knowledge around addiction and the families affected, as well as the topics of nutrition, health and wellness, and digital storytelling for self-expression, consciousness, and social responsibility.

A series of open-door events during the semester invited individuals from all over the region and the university to continually contribute new knowledge and collaborative ideas and action into the space, thus fueling a constant evolution of theory and practice for all learners and educators invested in this pilot semester. In April of 2018, at the final open-door event called Summit Slam, six deliverables were selected from nearly 100 strategic concepts by over 100 city and campus partners to be accelerated within the IACT’s separate but connected Collaboration Accelerator, a summer internship program that had the goal of initiating “solution-making” of the aforementioned deliverables. These deliverables included a workforce enterprise for people in recovery; a project centered around community building, cooking, motivation, and unity; a card deck, role-play simulator for children and youth; a Virtual Reality (VR) experience designed to explore maturity; creative art and mindfulness therapies between mother and child; and a community for displaced children.

The primary and most inclusive of the deliverables was chosen: a workforce enterprise for people in recovery/reentry from addiction/incarceration with a focus on holistic wellness programs that can shift city revenue models. It was then integrated with the other deliverables into a challenge centered around the question: How might we create a workforce enterprise for people in recovery who are reentering society from addiction and/or incarceration?

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