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Community engagement crucial for ASU arts students, who learn how to interact ethically

ASU teaches arts students how to engage ethically with communities they serve.
September 25, 2018

ASU's concept of pursuing mutually beneficial relationships is radical for universities, say panelists at Monday event

Working for the benefit of our community is central to the mission of Arizona State University, but it’s actually a pretty radical idea, according to a professor who teaches students how to do it.

One of ASU’s eight design aspirations is “social embeddedness,” defined as: ASU connects with communities through mutually beneficial partnerships.

In the past few decades, the concept of “community engagement” has moved into academia and arts, said Michael Rohd, an Institute Professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“The common use of that idea was, ‘OK, so this museum, this theater, this dance company, this gallery or this university arts and design school will engage with people so they show up more at our space.’ We tried to expand their experience of our art,” said Rohd, co-leader of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, a New York-based nonprofit organization.

“It was very infrequently that the term was about exchange or dialogue or justice.”

But the concept of seeing engagement as give and take — the “mutually beneficial” partnership — is new, said Rohd, who spoke at a panel discussion Monday night called “Ethics at Twilight: Ethical Community Engagement.” The event was a collaboration between the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics to help expose students to the kinds of ethical issues they will face in their careers.

Historically, universities viewed themselves as the holders of knowledge, which they occasionally bestowed on their surrounding communities, according to Lindsey Beagley, the director of social embeddedness for the Office of University Initiatives at ASU.

“Fifteen years ago, when ASU said ‘mutually beneficial partnerships,’ that fundamentally shifts the power dynamic,” she said.

“It implies the community has value. Not only do they benefit by interacting with the university, but the university benefits from interacting with the community.”

Research has proven that direct interaction with community members improves outcomes, she said.

“We know that with increased experiential learning opportunities, we see increased persistence to graduation,” Beagley said.

“We know that when research faculty engage with community partners, they ask better research questions. We also know they ask different research questions, which means innovation.”

All students in the Herberger Institute must engage with people outside the university through the Design and Arts Corps, which works to match community needs with faculty expertise and students’ energy.

Stephani Etheridge Woodson, a professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, is director of the Design and Arts Corps. She said that training the students to interact ethically is crucial before sending them off to meet people. So over the past year, thanks to a grant from the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, she was able to work with people in the community to create video modules that the students watch. The videos give messages like, “Show up with a humble spirit” and “Realize that you don’t know everything.”

“We love risks in arts and design, but we manage them,” Etheridge Woodson said.

Rohd said the video training modules themselves are a game changer.

“The idea of having folks who are not academically credentialed on the platform of technology that the university owns, giving instructions on how to enter, exit or be in the community — it is radical,” he said.

Etheridge Woodson said that ASU Project Cities, in the School of Sustainability, is a good example of a mutually beneficial engagement. Municipalities identify projects they would like done, and faculty create coursework for students to study the problem and create a solution. Last spring, a landscape design class designed a dog park for the city of Apache Junction, and students in Etheridge Woodson’s community theater class created a theater experience based on the city’s history.

Engaging ethically is hard work that takes a long time, the speakers said. Wanda Dalla Costa, an architect and Institute Professor in the Herberger Institute, has been working with the Gila River Indian Community. Her “design sovereignty” project aims to give the community a voice in creating new housing designs that are culturally relevant. Earlier this month, several ASU students spent time talking to community members to discover what features they want in a house. By the time the prototype is built, likely later this year, Dalla Costa will have spent more than three years working with the Gila River people.

But nothing can replace that on-the-ground listening, according to Erika Moore, an alumna of the Herberger Institute who helps run the Projecting All Voices initiative. In her previous job, she worked with people who were experiencing homelessness, walking along the Rio Salado riverbed and talking with them.

“You start by listening. And you listen and you listen and you listen,” she said.

“There are a lot of layers to every story.”

Top photo: Stephani Etheridge Woodson (right), a professor in ASU's School of Film, Dance and Theatre, speaks about the importance of genuine community engagement at the “Ethics at Twilight: Ethical Community Engagement” panel on Sept. 24. Also pictured is Michael Rohd, Institute Professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts (left) and Erika Moore, an alumna of the Herberger Institute who helps run the Projecting All Voices initiative. Ethics at Twilight is an ongoing lecture event sponsored by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now

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ASU’s Heather Bimonte-Nelson wins Bioscience Educator of the Year

September 25, 2018

Bimonte-Nelson bestowed 2018 Michael A. Cusanovich education award by her students

The office shelves of Arizona State University scientists are usually lined with books related to their research. Neuroendocrinology books and oversized atlases of the brain fill the office of ASU’s Heather Bimonte-Nelson, but her shelves are also covered with bedazzled and bejeweled picture frames that all show a beaming scientist surrounded by smiling students.

The beaming scientist is Bimonte-Nelson herself, who heads the Behavioral Neuroscience of Memory and Aging lab in the Department of Psychology. She is the 2018 recipient of the Michael A. Cusanovich Bioscience Educator of the Year Award. Bimonte-Nelson was nominated for the prestigious honor by six of her current and former students: Stephanie Koebele, Laura Mahady, Gail Stonebarger, Isabel Strouse, Alesia Prakapenka and Victoria Woner.

“I admire Heather for conducting rigorous and methodical research, and I appreciate her strong work ethic, hands-on mentoring style, and her advocacy for educating the public about science,” said Koebele, who is a graduate student in the Bimonte-Nelson lab.

The importance of asking why

Bimonte-Nelson, professor of psychology, studies how hormones like estrogen or progesterone affect the brain. She has looked at how the presence or absence of hormones changes the brain and what role hormones play in the differences between male and female brains. Currently, her lab focuses on how hormones impact memory across the life span. The work happening in the Behavioral Neuroscience of Memory and Aging lab is highly relevant to the study of understanding normal aging processes as well as Alzheimer’s disease.

“Aside from all her accomplishments as a scientist, what really stands out about Heather is her truly remarkable and endless dedication to her students as a professor,” said Strouse, an undergraduate student who works in the Bimonte-Nelson lab. “She wants nothing more than for her students to succeed, regardless of how long she has mentored them, and she honors her position as a mentor.”

Bimonte-Nelson considers training future scientists as important as her research.

“One day we will all be gone. The papers we’ve published will remain, and so will the students we’ve trained,” she said. “Who will continue trying to answer the questions that frame science? Who will keep asking, ‘Why?’”

The relationships among hormones and the brain are complicated, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. There are many hormones, and they interact with each other, with the brain and with behavior.

Members of the Bimonte-Nelson lab do not focus on what they think the data might show. Instead, she has her students focus on why an experiment proceeds in a certain way. The emphasis on the process instead of the outcome forces students to think critically.

“Worrying about whether your hypothesis is or is not supported by the data is not what generates good science,” Bimonte-Nelson said. “We want to know why the data do or do not support a hypothesis; that is how we begin to understand nature.”

Bimonte-Nelson describes her approach to critical thinking as encouraging her students to take a bird’s-eye perspective, or a 30,000-foot view. From that vantage point, she encourages her students to look at the jigsaw puzzle pieces — the hormones, their interactions and brain connections — all together. Taking this perspective can mean the students have to backtrack during an experiment and re-analyze data.

“Sometimes the most exciting findings in science are unexpected,” Bimonte-Nelson said. “I always tell my students congratulations that they discovered a truth in nature. Now their job is to go figure out why.”

Bimonte-Nelson credits her graduate adviser, the late Victor Denenberg, with training her both as a scientist and mentor.

“He taught me to be a scientist but also to trust myself. He told me I was smarter than I thought I was, and that changed me,” she said.

She passes that lesson on to her students, trying to empower them with knowledge and their own voice so they can ask difficult questions about data and have the courage to question dogma in the field.

“I love it when my students argue with me!”

Paying it forward

The bedazzled picture frames in Bimonte-Nelson’s office are not the only indication of what her students mean to her. The walls and shelves are plastered with cards and letters from students, and they all express gratitude.

Bimonte-Nelson is known for helping her students decide which courses to take and what to do next with their lives. She even vets potential graduate advisers.

“Heather practiced interview questions with me, read over copies of resumes and personal statements and gave me tips for interviewing at graduate schools across the country, but my experience is not unique,” said Woner, a psychology graduate student and former undergraduate in the Bimonte-Nelson lab. “There are dozens of students in her lab, and each are given the same personal attention and care.”

Former students regularly send Bimonte-Nelson email and text messages. Some let her know how their research is going, while others send pictures that show they learned another lesson from Bimonte-Nelson’s mentorship: the importance of outreach to the community, especially to children.

Her advocacy efforts go beyond her own students: Bimonte-Nelson is passionate about introducing underprivileged children and younger generations to science. Her lab hosts the annual ASU Brain Fair for Children and partners with local high schools to get students interested in science and working in laboratories.

“Several former students have started their own brain fairs across the country,” Bimonte-Nelson said. “It is so rewarding to know my students do outreach without me. They know the importance of educating and empowering the younger generations, and that is one way that I define success as a mentor.”

science writer , Psychology Department

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