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Christine Greenhow

Christine Greenhow got an OPE seed grant in 2006-07 to help develop an online social network that aims to ease the transition to college for low-income students.

Seeds of change

Office of Public Engagement seed grants are changing the U

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, Nov. 7, 2007

With the first snow flurries across Minnesota, many people have put all things seed- and harvest-related out of mind. But there's one more seed that members of the U of M community need to be aware of: Public Engagement Seed Grants, awarded by the Office for Public Engagement (OPE).

The request for proposals for the 2007-2008 cycle began Friday, and applications are due Dec. 7. The seed grants, established in 2000, fund projects--established by members of the University community--that will engage and serve the greater community.

This cycle of seed grants marks a crucial point for OPE in honing its mission and programs, says interim associate vice president for public engagement Geoff Maruyama.

"The office has been around long enough that it's time to look back and reflect on what we have done [and] to see what can move us effectively towards where we want to go next," says Maruyama. "We have been looking at our accomplishments and figuring out how they can be channeled into our vision for the future--the steps we need to take to get from where we are to where we want to be."

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SEED GRANTS


OPE seed grants, established in 2000, fund about 20 projects a year. Proposals for the next round are due by Dec. 7. Applicants are encouraged to propose projects related to broad U priorities and strategic initiatives. Get the guidelines and application.

Maruyama and OPE encourage this year's seed-grant applicants to think about broad U priorities and strategic positioning initiatives. OPE hopes to serve as a catalyst, collaborator, and coordinator in building multi-disciplinary, sustainable partnerships among groups inside and outside the University.

"We are a university that can leverage and apply our strengths to resolve community problems and issues," says Maruyama. "These seed-grant projects are tangible examples of just how that work is done."

Two examples of 2006-07 seed-grant recipients show what's possible.

Seed grants in action

Many low-income students face a tough transition in their first year of college. Can a social network connecting them to each other, designed for them on the Internet, help?

A new project called SSO is finding out: Supporting Students Online to Be Learners, Leaders, and Guides: Building Networked Communities in Minnesota. SSO got a start with an OPE seed grant to Christine Greenhow, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Education and Human Development's learning technologies area of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Through SSO, Greenhow and a community partner, Admission Possible--a local nonprofit working to help hundreds of low-income urban high school students gain admission to college--are finding ways to harness social networking technologies like Facebook and Myspace to connect and support these students.

"It's important that researchers and public leaders work together on educational problems. When research makes its way into the hands of practitioners who inform and shape it, when we can create new knowledge and advance solutions that work."

By fostering a network, SSO hopes to reduce social isolation, increase learning, and encourage higher graduation rates among at-risk students in Minnesota and across the nation.

"A lot of people looking at these sites think there is no real learning going on," says Greenhow. "But there are many aspects of these sites that actually allow young people to practice the skills educators have identified as useful in our global society--practical and creative technology skills, critical thinking, digital writing, collaborative problem-solving, and interaction with a diverse population. There is a lot going on that is not being researched, where we can become leaders."

Greenhow says that, without the seed grant from OPE, SSO would not have been possible. The funds allowed SSO to move ahead, hiring a research assistant and conducting comprehensive surveys of targeted students. It allowed SSO to apply for additional funds from the MacArthur Foundation and the U's Children, Youth and Family Consortium and Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). With an IAS Research Collaborative grant, Greenhow was able to form a multidisciplinary working group with other researchers--in new media, writing studies, virtual architecture, computer science, education, and the Digital Media Center--as a means of furthering SSO's vision.

SSO's prototype, called the SHOUT-OUT Digital Learning Initiative, is scheduled to launch this winter. Greenhow is eager to get feedback from participants and use it to drive the project forward.

Jodi Sandfort
Associate professor Jodi Sandfort helped to develop a project that will provide professional development opportunities for those in the nonprofit sector.

Another project awarded a seed grant in 2006-2007 is Non-Profit Leadership Development, a project for people in or interested in the nonprofit sector who want professional development. It was initiated by associate professors Jodi Sandfort and Melissa Stone, associate professors in the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs, as part of a larger college initiative around leadership development.

"Unlike the business sector, the nonprofit sector does not have a lot of resources to underwrite costs for professional development," says Sandfort. "But it is human resources that are ostensibly most important to that sector. People need to be able to innovate, they need to be able to cross boundaries and get resources to develop innovative programs to our most pressing social problems."

With the seed grant investment, Sandfort and Stone got involved in activities to enact their mission. They helped construct two award-winning teaching cases about nonprofit innovation. They developed a yearlong, one-credit course, Board Service Practicum (PA 5190-02), to develop governance leadership skills for students who serve on boards of nonprofit organizations. They expanded a partnership with the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits, which allowed them to co-host a second annual leadership conference in the summer, attended by 350, including students who got access through scholarships.

"It's important that researchers and public leaders work together on educational problems," says Sandfort. "When research makes its way into the hands of practitioners who inform and shape it, then we can create new knowledge and advance solutions that work."

Sandfort believes that the seed grant gave them a chance to solidify goals and partnerships and "springboard into an arena that will yield lots of benefits for the Humphrey Institute and the community in the years to come."

Giving a sign

Sandfort also sees the seed grants as a sign of legitimacy and validation for fledgling projects on the road to fruition.

"It reinforces the kind of behavior that we desire for a public university," she says. "There are so many incentives to systems within the academy to not engage in this kind of work. This resource can go a long way in recognizing the important work that people are doing and inspiring people to take it to the next level."

For more information, see OPE Awards and Grants or contact Michelle Kuhl at witt0160@umn.edu.


Stephanie Wilkes is a senior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail wilk0268@umn.edu.