A closer look at the experiential learning style that Ball State leaders believe will save higher education.

Nearly two dozen faculty members are gathered in the Burkhardt Building on a recent blustery afternoon. Talk of current events and grading papers grinds to a halt as Jennifer Blackmer enters the room. On an interactive projector, she pulls up a set of PowerPoint slides. Then, with trademark enthusiasm, she announces, “I’m here with a stump speech for you.”

Since September, Blackmer has given a variation of this talk, with the goal of getting professors to rethink how they teach. She’s visited more than 20 departments and colleges within the university, outlining entrepreneurial learning as a pedagogical approach in which faculty create student-driven experiences promoting risk-taking and creativity. With every presentation, she reviews Ball State’s refreshed strategic plan, The Centennial Commitment (18 by ’18), how entrepreneurial learning focuses on being student-centered and community-engaged, why that matters in today’s educational landscape, and that the Office of Entrepreneurial Learning was created to support faculty.

“What I’m trying to do is empower faculty,” the tenured theater professor said in an interview. “To get them to understand risk-taking can mean a lot of things. It’s leading a history class that examines four case studies versus 2,000 years’ worth of facts. It’s stepping away from the lectern to let students work in groups. It’s putting students in direct contact with community partners. All of that requires faculty stepping outside of their comfort zone.”

“(R)isk-taking can mean a lot of things. It’s leading a history class that examines four case studies versus 2,000 years’ worth of facts. It’s stepping away from the lectern to let students work in groups. It’s putting students in direct contact with community partners. All of that requires faculty stepping outside of their comfort zones.”
— Jennifer Blackmer, associate provost for entrepreneurial learning

Back with the group, she said in an assured tone, “This is where we’re headed. And we think it’s a marvelous model of education that’s going to solve a lot of the problems in higher education right now.”

Helping carry out Ball State’s vision

Encouraging growth of entrepreneurial learning is a far cry from Blackmer’s traditional work — or so the award-winning playwright thought. “At first, talking about it scared me because I’m an artist. What do I know about entrepreneurship?”

But the more she explored the concept, the more she realized entrepreneurship doesn’t solely belong to the business world. That in fact, she realized, her entire career has been molded by it. As an artist, she’s long been in the business of promoting her work. Countless times, she’s raised money for plays she’s directed, designed postcards and made phone calls on behalf of works she’s written.

“I did it again, and again, without ever thinking I was an entrepreneur, and before long, I was teaching others how to do it, too,” she said. “In some ways, those of us in the arts, humanities and sciences have always been entrepreneurs.”

In her 13 years at Ball State, Blackmer has led multiple immersive learning projects, experiences that serve as the core of the university’s entrepreneurial learning activities. Now, in her pioneering role as the associate provost for entrepreneurial learning, Blackmer’s once more in a position that’s by its very definition entrepreneurial.

“There’s no playbook for this job,” she said. “I’m making it up as I go.”

Still, she and her small but determined team of fellow administrators and support staff understand their mission: To carry out Ball State’s vision of becoming the model of a student-centered, community-engaged, 21st-century public research institution. Doing so involves transforming students into collaborative, connected entrepreneurial learners who go on to become professional leaders.

But they must convince a campus of educators that entrepreneurial learning isn’t a fad.

Just more jargon?

Adam Kuban, an assistant professor of journalism, understands that faculty members who hear “entrepreneurial learning” may be wary. “The educational world is rife with catchphrases, so you couldn’t blame faculty who thought, ‘Is this something else that’s going to pass? Or is this finally going to be what becomes Ball State’s identity?’ ”

Split image of two photos show Ball State journalism and geological science student working together on a water-quality testing project.

Ball State journalism and geological science students worked together on an immersive learning project that tested the quality of local waterway samples they collected. Students used the resulting data to create multimedia materials that benefited the class’s partners, Delaware County Soil & Water Conservation District and Red-tail Land Conservancy. As a result, the partners received a $100,000 grant from the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Kuban speaks with the candor of someone whose previous career was in broadcast journalism. As a junior faculty member who’s led three immersive learning experiences in as many years, he’s come to appreciate that “entrepreneurial learning” is far more than another slogan.

“I’ve heard Jen talk about it as an ‘umbrella term’ because it describes a lot of the different kinds of work already happening here,” Kuban said. “But I think it’s less important for people to get caught up in the term and instead focus on the process. That’s what’s key.”

“The educational world is rife with catchphrases, so you couldn’t blame faculty who thought, ‘Is this something else that’s going to pass? Or is this finally going to be what becomes Ball State’s identity?’ ”
— Adam Kuban, assistant professor of journalism

In the last decade or so, a growing number of colleges and universities have embraced entrepreneurship and the innovations it leads to, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Commerce report, “The Innovative and Entrepreneurial University.” Schools view the core entrepreneurial characteristics of exploration, problem-solving and creative risk-taking as crucial to remaining pertinent in today’s tough economic times.

With millions of students saddled with loan debt and a steady stream of news articles and surveys questioning the value of a college degree, public universities must adapt to withstand public scrutiny, explains Kelli Huth, Ball State’s director of immersive learning. “If we want to stay relevant as an institution of higher education, we have to involve our students in the challenges faced by their generation and generations to come. Our duty as a leading university in community engagement is not only to prepare them for their roles as professionals but for their roles as concerned, active citizens.”

In recent years, Huth joined members of the Office of Community Engagement in looking at how other universities effectively implement community-engaged scholarship as part of entrepreneurial learning. “Community engagement doesn’t just live in the realm of service but cuts across the missions of teaching, research and service,” Huth explains.

“If we want to stay relevant as an institution of higher education, we have to involve our students in the challenges faced by their generation and generations to come. Our duty … is not only to prepare them for their roles as professionals but for their roles as concerned, active citizens.”
— Kelli Huth, director of immersive learning

In June 2015, she was part of a campus team that participated in a global Engagement Academy at Virginia Tech University. Its faculty included Barbara Holland, an international expert in the field who helped Ball State develop a plan to engage local communities. And in 2013, Ball State leaders visited Michigan State University, where “community-engaged research is at the core of everything they do,” Huth said. “If you’re not doing it there, you’re not getting promotion and tenure.”

A volunteer at a horse-riding camp gestures for a child to let a horse smell his hand.

Blackford County’s High Riding Art and Equestrian Day Camp is led by Ruth Jefferson, assistant professor of special education. The two-week camp pairs Ball State students with children from Grades 3-12 with mild special needs. Jefferson said the entrepreneurial learning team has been an invaluable partner for the camp.

A broader academic approach

Community engagement sold Kuban on the importance of entrepreneurial learning. “For higher education to survive, faculty have to seek out opportunities to integrate themselves with the community. Doing so allows us to act as change agents. In a city that’s fallen on hard times, that’s a big part of why I want to be here teaching in Muncie.”

Of Kuban’s recent immersive learning projects, one in particular is viewed as exemplary. His students partnered with some of Lee Florea’s geological science students to test the quality of local waterway samples they collected. Students used the resulting data to create multimedia materials that benefited the class’s partners, Delaware County Soil & Water Conservation District and Red-tail Land Conservancy. As a result, the partners received a $100,000 grant from the state’s Department of Natural Resources; Kuban and Florea were published in the Journal of Community Engagement in Higher Education; and 15 of their undergraduate students gave presentations about the work at academic seminars.

While immersive learning experiences such as the Kuban-Florea project remain the centerpiece of entrepreneurial learning, the term as now applied at Ball State recognizes a broader range of endeavors. These include undergraduate research, internships, student teaching, practicums, study abroad, service learning and student employment.

Huth said the inclusive nature of entrepreneurial learning clears some of the confusion and constraints that had hindered faculty from pursuing immersive learning experiences. For example, gone are the seven-point guidelines that used to strictly define whether the university would recognize a project as immersive.

Developing this more holistic approach lets Ball State acknowledge the concerns of faculty who felt the immersive-driven model failed to consider projects that weren’t interdisciplinary or more in line with the traditional work of academia.

Setting up the framework

One of those projects was the College of Architecture and Planning’s World Tour, a periodic program that sends CAP students with their professors on a 15-week expedition to cities around the globe. “That was a project that wouldn’t have qualified as immersive learning,” said Bruce Frankel, a professor of urban planning. “So I think it’s a positive step in the right direction, this flexibility I’m hearing about with the latest learning model.”

Students are seen participating in the College of Architecture and Planning’s CAP Asia semester.

Students are seen participating in the College of Architecture and Planning’s CAP Asia semester with Nihal Perera (not pictured), professor of urban planning. The immersive learning experience falls under the umbrella of entrepreneurial learning and joins a wide range of traditional activities such as research, internships and other study abroad experiences.

Frankel posed a series of questions about entrepreneurial learning that were addressed during a fall Research Week presentation by Huth and Suzanne Plesha, director of faculty support and assessment for the Office of Entrepreneurial Learning. As an extension of the work Blackmer does, the duo dedicates a lot of time to speaking about entrepreneurial learning at meetings and events across campus.

Also in the room that day was Stan Geidel, campus liaison for Sponsored Projects Administration. Geidel said he appreciated Huth and Plesha touching on processes and resources the new office is sharing with faculty to help them figure out how to promote community-engaged and/or entrepreneurial scholarship. “Helping faculty understand on the front end how to build in outcomes that will contribute to their promotion and tenure is so important,” he said. “It’s going to be the quickest way to reassure those faculty members who aren’t confident these kinds of experiences can count in traditional ways.”

With every session like the one Frankel and Geidel attended, Huth, Plesha and Blackmer hope faculty leave with a better understanding of entrepreneurial learning, one that lets them fully commit to this particular pedagogy. In the months and years to come, the trio will continue this kind of outreach while taking steps toward gathering the data necessary to support their office’s future.

“Helping faculty understand on the front end how to build in outcomes that will contribute to their promotion and tenure is so important. It’s going to be the quickest way to reassure those faculty members who aren’t confident these kinds of experiences can count in traditional ways.”
— Stan Geidel, campus liaison for Sponsored Projects Administration

“What we’ve always had before were pockets of this kind of activity — Virginia Ball Center projects here, Building Better Communities and provost grant projects there — but never any kind of streamlined approach where all the data was coming together in a more holistic picture of the types of impactful learning activities students are engaged in on campus,” Huth explained. “What we’re doing now is setting up that framework.”

In search of broad faculty support

Ruth Jefferson, an assistant professor of special education, calls Blackmer and her staff the greatest cheerleaders for the ongoing work Jefferson oversees as faculty mentor for Blackford County’s High Riding Art and Equestrian Day Camp. Ball State students in Jefferson’s immersive learning course plan and implement a two-week program catering to children from Grades 3-12 with mild special needs. This summer, the camp will enter its sixth year of operation.

“When I first started offering this course and working with our community partners, I was very naive to policies, procedures and personnel,” Jefferson said. With assistance from Ball State’s entrepreneurial learning staff, she continues to identify leadership, college partners and small grants to fund the camp. “It wasn’t our initial goal, but research opportunities associated with the camp have also begun to present themselves,” Jefferson added, “and we’ve been invited to several conferences to present our work.”

“Entrepreneurial learning is messy, and it makes you vulnerable because you’re facing failure with these projects right along with your students. How are you supposed to look like the expert when you’re as perplexed in the moment as they are?”
— Adam Kuban, assistant professor of journalism

Kuban said such immersive learning projects could never happen without the buy-in of people from both offices of entrepreneurial learning and community engagement. “If any one of those people weren’t offering their support, it’d be one more roadblock to overcome — and there are enough of those with projects like these.”

Also key is an open attitude among the faculty involved. “It’s messy, and it makes you vulnerable because you’re facing failure with these projects right along with your students,” Kuban said. “How are you supposed to look like the expert when you’re as perplexed in the moment as they are? I think some faculty have a hard time embracing that. … I mean, I have a hard time embracing that, but (at 32) I think my age makes it easier.”

While new and young faculty may be the earliest and least critical adopters of entrepreneurial learning, the biggest obstacle Blackmer and her team will face in campuswide buy-in is aligning the promotion and tenure process with this mode of learning. “That’s what’s going to address the question everyone wants answered, which is, ‘What’s in it for me?’ ” Blackmer said.

Those conversations, she promises, are happening between her; Julie Halbig, Ball State’s vice president for government relations and community engagement; and members of the president’s cabinet. In the meantime, staff members from both offices are open to faculty suggestions. Kuban is quick to offer one: “I’d like to see more value placed on qualitative results and maybe some flexibility with how we’re evaluated. Instead of three separate binders for teaching and research and service, how about one that allows me to connect all three criteria as they relate to these projects I’m doing? That would allow me to better convey the impact of my entrepreneurial work through the traditional outcomes of academia.”

While addressing the promotion and tenure process is bound to be longer term, more immediate measures of success for the Office of Entrepreneurial Learning will come in the form of continued educational outreach (Blackmer and her staff have given 22-plus hours of presentations and counting); launching a website for the office; securing dedicated office space; and continuing to collect data and success stories from students and faculty like Jefferson.

But faculty will find that some rewards cannot be measured as Jefferson has seen with the horse camp. “The recipients of our hard work are the families and campers. To see their faces, hear their heartfelt words of thanks and know that we have created lasting effects and memories is truly a priceless commodity.”

Educating students for lives after college

Blackmer stresses that entrepreneurial learning can be experienced at all levels of the classroom. Not every risk has to be as great as those that accompany an immersive learning project but often can be something like “a faculty member letting her students have a say in crafting the syllabus.” Such steps allow students to take an active role in their education, and at heart, that is the outcome administrators seek most from this style of pedagogy.

Back in the interactive learning classroom in Burkhardt, Blackmer is wrapping up her latest presentation with a smile. Plesha said she admires her boss for having the nerve to tackle her new role. “It takes a lot of energy to do this job, to adjust to the criticisms and recommendations and all the work that needs to be accomplished.” Added Huth, “In a lot of ways, I think Jen’s background in theater is what gives her the confidence and personality to pull it off.”

“(L)et’s not lose sight of the fact we’re educating students for their lives after college, not just jobs.”
— Jennifer Blackmer, associate provost for entrepreneurial learning

As any good candidate delivering a stump speech knows, Blackmer wants to leave the group with a message of promise. “It’s going to take us a while to get there, but let’s not lose sight of the fact we’re educating students for their lives after college, not just jobs. We want them to be proactive, have self-confidence and know what questions to ask after they graduate. Because isn’t that what all good entrepreneurs do?”