President's Blog

Strategic Goal #1: Innovative Learning

I look forward to next week’s planning retreat with all our deans and senior administration, an opportunity to pause from our daily jobs and come together to think creatively and collaboratively about the university’s future. I am particularly excited that our retreat this year will address in more detail the first goal in our strategic plan: Innovative Learning.

Goal 1 in our 2014-24 Strategic Plan states that we will deliver a transformative signature Mason Learning Experience that is experiential, global, and technology-rich. The plan lists several initiatives that lay a path to achieving this goal by providing opportunities for experiential and integrative learning in all programs.

Many of our students already enjoy this kind of learning experience, by engaging in undergraduate research or service learning, studying abroad or developing entrepreneurial projects. Most of these students are likely to single out those experiences as their most impactful at Mason.

This is not surprising. We know that learning is most effective when it is embedded in meaningful contexts, when it puts individuals in charge of their own learning, when it taps students’ passion and desire to have real impact. Learning happens best when individuals apply new knowledge to real-world situations or engage in creative endeavors. Students become more effective problem solvers when they are exposed to multiple perspectives and are able to collaborate across cultural boundaries.

Our goal is to make sure all Mason students have such a transformative learning experience, regardless of their academic discipline. So during our retreat we will be asking two key questions:

  • What is the minimum exposure that every Mason student should have to at least one of these impactful forms of learning?
  • What additional learning opportunities should we create for those students seeking an even deeper experience with these types of learning?

Research and Discovery

Working under the guidance of a professor or graduate student on a research project can be an extraordinary way to deepen a student’s understanding of a discipline, the scientific method of discovery, and the ability to tackle new intellectual questions. Even students who will not go on to pursue scholarly careers can develop analytical skills and an appreciation for the discovery process that are impossible to develop in the traditional classroom.

There are several ways for students to participate in undergraduate research at Mason through our award-winning OSCAR programs (pardon our acronyms…this one stands for Office of Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research).

Among the programs, students can take research-intensive courses that require research or scholarship activities. They can apply to work as a research assistant via federal work study and then serve 150 hours per semester assisting a faculty member. Or they can apply to the Undergraduate Research Scholarship Program (URSP), a competitive grant leading to a three-credit, 144-hour faculty-led research project over one semester. Other OSCAR efforts connect students to external research projects or summer research activities, as well as fund students to travel to national or international conferences to present their work.

One of the reasons undergraduate research is such powerful learning process is that it provides for close personal interactions between a student and a professor. That kind of interaction, however, limits the number of students that a faculty member can oversee and therefore the number of research opportunities we can realistically offer to our students.

Are there alternative kinds of inquiry-based experiences that can have similar impact while being more scalable?  How can we adapt emerging techniques of scientific crowdsourcing, for example, to reach more students?

Global Engagement

Nothing can prepare a student better for today’s globally interconnected world than the experience of living and learning in a different culture. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, only about 10 percent of American students travel abroad while in college, according to the Institute of International Education. The percentage at Mason is even lower.

Some small private colleges like Goucher College and Susquehanna University now mandate study abroad for all students. As a public university with a socioeconomically diverse student body and limited resources in the bank, we would not be able to go that far. But what can we do to dramatically increase the number of Mason students who go abroad?

Here are some examples of universities where students in international studies, international business, international relations or global health are required to spend a semester abroad (for reference, Mason’s Global Affairs major doesn’t have such a requirement): Cal State Long Beach, San Jose State, North Florida, Northwestern, Webster, DePaul, Spelman, Stanford, Rutgers and Linfield.

Should we design curricula and programs that embed a meaningful time abroad? Should we offer a minor that would complement any major with transformative experiences abroad and perhaps other requirements? How can we leverage our presence in Korea and partnership in Spain to dramatically increase the number of Mason students enjoying a meaningful international experience? What other kinds of programs in other locations may provide transformative yet affordable opportunities for Mason students to go abroad? What are the current curricular or cultural constraints that keep students from going abroad?

Social Impact and Innovation

Service learning is a powerful learning tool. By engaging in consequential community service, students can reach a deeper understanding of complex societal issues, while developing important leadership, collaborative and problem-solving skills.

Some universities, like Tulane University, have made service learning a signature requirement for all students. Others have created specialized centers to offer these learning opportunities, like the Beeck Center at Georgetown or the Tisch College at Tufts University. Tufts now has a 1+4 program that allows accepted students to work full-time in community service before beginning their undergraduate studies.

At Mason we have a lengthy experience with service learning, sometimes combined with short international experiences, sometimes in partnership with a local organization, like the many programs offered through SAIL (another of our clever acronyms, standing for Social Action and Integrative Learning).

As I have discussed elsewhere, our location outside the nation’s capital and the rich ecosystem of social enterprises and nongovernmental organizations around us afford us a unique opportunity to be a reference in the space of social entrepreneurship, social innovation and service learning. For a number of reasons, we haven’t been able to reach the scale that we can and should have, and our first attempt to create a school of social impact and innovation didn’t go too far. How can we structure ourselves to offer many more opportunities to our students to engage in meaningful service learning and creative endeavors with great social impact?


One particular form of active learning that is gaining increasing currency in higher education is to engage in an entrepreneurial project by conceiving a new product or service that may solve an unmet need or satisfy existing market demand. Normally done in teams, the right type of entrepreneurial project can help students put their technical, business and social knowledge into action while developing important leadership, collaborative, analytical and creative skills.

Entrepreneurship is one of the concepts we use to describe our university–the E in the Mason IDEA–and it is at the core of strategic plan Goal 5 – Innovation Engine, where we promise to create spaces and networks of innovation and business incubation that contribute to the economic vitality of our region. A university-wide program in entrepreneurship will help us offer transformative learning experiences to our students while delivering on our objective of being an engine of innovation for our region.

Many universities have established academic programs in entrepreneurship as well as incubators and mentoring programs to help students move their ideas to the marketplace. The Zahn Innovation Center at City College of New York is a great example of a university-wide initiative that organizes a variety of business plan competitions, hackathons and workshops, and it advises academic departments in the creation of curricular innovations involving entrepreneurial projects. The Zahn Center (plus a similar one in San Diego State) is named after Moxie Foundation‘s founder, Irwin Zahn, who insists that a successful entrepreneurship program should not be limited to one academic unit but should instead act as a multidisciplinary integrator or convener. I happen to agree with his view.

As we build our new innovation and entrepreneurship space in the center of campus (we also have an acronym for that: MIX, for Mason Innovation eXchange) we have a chance to structure programs to bring together student teams from across the university with business leaders and mentors from our community. How should we structure our entrepreneurship programs to reach hundreds of students throughout the university every year? How can we connect these programs with networks of entrepreneurs in our community?

Putting it all together

At Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) several of these areas form the basis of the RISE to the IUPUI Challenge initiative that tasks students to engage with at least two experiences of transformative learning before graduating. RISE stands for the four areas of engagement: Research, International, Service learning and Experiential learning.

In our retreat next week, we’ll have a chance to discuss how to create many more opportunities for our students and turn those opportunities into a signature of what it means to study at Mason. Stay tuned for some of the ideas that come out of our discussions.