Facilitating High Value Learning Experiences for Research Diffusion

Participants describing important outcomes from the recent GCFSI workshop. Photo courtesy GCFSI.

Bill Heinrich, Director of Assessment, MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

At the end of a mild January weekend, 30+ researchers, all recipients of Global Center for Food Systems Innovation (GCFSI) Grants, and as many designers, coaches, students, entrepreneurs, teachers, and facilitators stood clustered in a conference room. Each shared a personal and meaningful highlight from two days spent working on diffusion of their already-funded innovative research. Here’s a summary of their observations:

  • Translating scholarship matters to broader audiences
  • Entrepreneurship education is needed for research scaling and diffusion
  • Innovation comes from sharing ideas and listening in deep ways
GCFSI facil-i-bill

The author, Bill Heinrich, on site at the GCFSI workshop that he helped to facilitate.

As the Director of Assessment at MSU’s Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, I’m constantly finding new ways to connect evidence-based high value learning practices with new audiences and users. I came across this GCFSI workshop because I had previously helped them develop an experiential curriculum for a new learning experience in Malawi. However, this opportunity was marked by a notable change in leadership at GCFSI. GCFSI needed to send a message to the grant teams, to MSU, and to their funder, USAID that business-as-usual was not an option for modern scaling and diffusion. Guided by the Hub’s vision and mission, I was eager to co-create and facilitate a design that delivered entrepreneurial outcomes through participatory learning experiences.

By design, the workshop facilitation team created activities to surround the 16 visiting research teams with expert support and coaching from MSU and USAID and propel scaling and diffusion of funded research. The workshop was hosted by GCFSI and I facilitated it alongside Terence O’Neill from MSU Libraries and Neil Kane, MSU’s Director of Undergraduate Entrepreneurship. The planning team from GCFSI, the support team from USAID, and students from MSU’s Design for America chapter each played key roles. Curriculum and culture blended to form a seamless experience, eliminating a need for researchers to defend a position, but rather enhancing the desire to grow projects into enterprises.

We created a place where GCFSI was not the knower of all things, but rather a dynamic and engaging host to a very rich conversation. We avoided the list of talking heads and lectures and forged an interactive, participatory, peer-to-peer integrated learning community. GCFSI engaged as expert coaches who were ready to challenge and respond to concerns to create deeper connections to the material.

The design-focused agenda centered on helping researchers identify value in their innovation, understand scaling, plan diffusion and delivery, develop communication strategies, and learning how to break down barriers to end users. Each grant team shared the richness of their innovations distilled into a 3 minute Ignite-Style presentation. This shared communication experience became an important connecting thread for participants.

In addition to formal feedback, some participants engaged in sharing their experience via social media. Some highlights emerged during a community centered appreciation exercise at the end of the workshop. Here are some responses that represent what we believe to be indicators of a successful experience:

The exchange [between researchers] was really important in having to explain your project to other people not in my field.”

If we want [grants] to be a safe space for failure, evaluating grants on learning from failures with a solid plan to adapt and learn.”

I found the diversity of expertise invigorating and that really helped me take a step back to engage and provide feedback in areas where we have experience and also tapping into what folks in the room bring to a scientific and research orientation that will strengthen the rigor of our program.”

I really enjoyed hearing about other innovations, they spurred some of my own thinking and I am hoping I can find opportunities for collaboration ‘cause some of these projects are super interesting and I want to learn more.”

In real time, I witnessed the GCFSI team shift in their seats and wrestle with a perceived need to be “the experts”. Then I saw a team at once excited to try leading from the middle and nervous to risk an unfamiliar format. In the end, the GCFSI team both modeled and practiced being a learning organization in the excellent company of a community of researchers. No one person’s expertise went to waste and no one voice dominated any conversation. At the end of the weekend, leaders from both GCFSI and USAID told me to hold my calendar open for version 2.0 of this workshop in 2017. Until then I look forward to connecting more audiences to these kinds of boundary-spanning learning opportunities.



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