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Igniting Innovation

Unconventional Test Lab

From the basketball hoop to the dinner table to the mindfulness space — a quick glance makes it clear that the GEMnasium is unlike other learning spaces. But, then again, the GEMnasium offers a learning experience unlike any other.

Once a 3,200-square-foot storage area, the GEMnasium is now a collaborative, hands-on test lab for transdisciplinary learning. Conceived by the Institute of Applied Creativity for Transformation (IACT) in 2017, the facility aims to develop creative, adaptive, collaborative thinkers who have learned how to fail — and to rebound from failure.

In the GEMnasium, students, faculty, staff and regional partners can prototype new teaching and learning models, embrace ambiguity, take creative risks and fail forward — learning and growing from their experiences.

“We emphasize everyone bringing their own knowledge and expertise to a collective effort,” said Adrienne Ausdenmoore, director of IACT. “Beyond just looking for solutions to complex problems, students are also learning to find the empathy and humanity in them.”

Each year, educators, students and community partners collaborate on a unified Grand Challenge, contributing to solving a large-scale, humanity-based issue. The first Grand Challenge focused on the opioid crisis, while the 2019 challenge centers on creating and sustaining a just and resilient community food system. 

“It’s more than just community leaders sharing expertise at the beginning, and students offering solutions at the end. It’s about community members and students working together to explore possibilities,” said Ausdenmoore. 

With backgrounds ranging from education and theater to business and engineering, participants approach the challenge using their individual background and perspective. For example, students in Kevin Hallinan’s engineering analysis course used a government substance abuse database to perform predictive modeling to help determine factors that help opioid addicts succeed in recovery. Students across disciplines share their findings, learning from each other and sparking new ideas and questions.

“Experiences in the GEMnasium help everyone see that the only solutions are those that break down silos,” said Hallinan. “What is developed is much better than what could be achieved from individual disciplinary perspectives.”

In addition to developing innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, the GEMnasium encourages students and faculty members alike to become more nimble in regard to the learning process.

“Students are leaving here with the ability to collaborate across disciplines and see how their discipline can be applied to help solve complex problems,” Ausdenmoore said. “Both faculty and students get comfortable with ambiguity. How the class will evolve isn’t always clear, and that’s OK. The important thing is that everyone is learning and growing together.”

GEMnasium by the Numbers

  • 41 course sections in 14 disciplines have participated.
  • 34 educators have been directly involved, including 23 faculty/instructors of record.
  • 847 students have been a part of the GEMnasium; the number has grown each semester.