A sabbatical in industry with Steelcase

A sabbatical in industry with Steelcase

I have some exciting news to share with you all, which has been in the works for nearly a year and has now finally come to fruition. Next year (academic year 2017-2018) I'll be on sabbatical from GVSU for the entire year and taking a position as scholar-in-residence in the education division at Steelcase, Incorporated.

How this came about

You probably know Steelcase, by sight if not by name. They are one of the world's leading manufacturers of high-end office furniture and architectural products, and their stuff is found in businesses and campuses all over the world. Which may lead you to ask, why is a mathematician/college professor going to work for a furniture company?

To answer that question, what you may not know about Steelcase is that they are actively and deeply interested in pushing the boundaries of what's known about active learning at all levels of education. They focus on a kind of educational technology that doesn't get a lot of face time on blogs or at conferences: The technology that defines the learning space itself. They employ a small army of engineers, designers, and other professionals to study how classroom spaces can be transformed into active learning environments and have come up with some brilliant --- and beautiful --- solutions.

I learned about Steelcase's educational division a few years back, when I was doing some research for my department on interactive whiteboards. I was surprised to learn that Steelcase makes interactive whiteboards, and since they are a local company (based in Grand Rapids) I contacted their educational division to learn more and was introduced to Andrew Kim from Steelcase's Workspace Futures group. We had an extended chat about active learning and flipped learning, which eventually led to Andrew's coming out to GVSU to observe some of my classes and me going to Steelcase's EDU campus in Grand Rapids to talk. We've traded visits several times since then and maintained a good and open relationship.

Fast forward to last year, when I was starting to think about a sabbatical. I was really looking for a big idea for my sabbatical, some kind of big ambitious "moon shot" that would set the tone and agenda for the next 10-15 years of my career. I even drafted up a wish list of what I wanted and quickly had a very good idea of what I wanted to do. But, I couldn't find a means of doing it that would fit. For family reasons I couldn't go overseas for a year, as much as I would have liked; and nothing seemed to fit here in the states.

One afternoon, it dawned on me that I already had a relationship with a great potential host that was just 20 minutes from my house. Minutes later I had drafted and sent off an email to Andrew, out of the blue, and pitched him an unedited idea for a sabbatical with his group. It was a little weird, I told him, but doable if Steelcase would be willing to stretch a little. He agreed (both about the weirdness and the doability). After several back-and-forth meetings between myself, GVSU, and Steelcase and after a lengthy process of sharpening and writing a proposal, I got approval from the Provost a couple of weeks ago.

What I'll be doing

The idea was that I would be a resident educator in Steelcase's education group, somebody who knows some things about teaching and learning on both the theoretical and practical levels who can give perspective on Steelcase's educational projects. The title I came up with was "scholar-in-residence", and I'll be doing a mix of pure research (both on my own and with Steelcase), professional development workshops speaking engagements, and work with education clients.

Some of the research I'll be involved in involves questions about the role learning spaces play in active learning. For example, are there certain aspects to the design of a learning space that make flipped learning more effective than it is? Are there learning space designs that work better for active learning in mathematics than they do for active learning in the sciences, or languages, or some other discipline? These are important and interesting questions that I'm excited to tackle.

Another aspect I'm excited about is professional development workshops. Most of you know I give workshops pretty frequently and it's something I really enjoy doing, so the idea was --- why not bring the workshops to me rather than me to the workshops? I'll be providing an ongoing colloquium series on teaching and learning --- almost like a college-level course --- to Steelcase employees twice a month, and we have plans to bring in groups of teachers to the Steelcase campus for active learning workshops on a regular basis. I'll also still be going out to other locations to give workshops as well, just like I do now.

In addition to doing these things at Steelcase, I am going to be jump-starting two research projects that I began in the last few years, but which for various reasons fell to the wayside.

  • The first is a project on flipped learning and self-regulated learning. My colleague Marcia Frobish and I collected data on students in Calculus 1 a few years ago, and administered the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire to those students to see if being in a flipped learning environment boosted the development of self-regulated learning behaviors. We couldn't finish the study at the time and so we're rebooting it.
  • The second is a project that investigates the effect of flipped learning environments on students with learning disabilities. Amy Schelling (in the GVSU College of Education) and I designed some flipped lessons for our College Algebra class and deployed them in sections of that course, with the idea that we'd interview students with learning disabilities and study the responses. We had issues with data collection and never got anything useful, but we're going to reboot and try again.

What this sabbatical means for me

I wanted to take my sabbatical to do something that I'd never be able to do while teaching 3-4 classes a semester and being involved in service --- and that's a significant focus on scholarship, particularly building my research chops and experiences in a radically focused way over the course of a whole year. I'm thrilled to get this chance.

It will be a real shift in my life, though. I'll be out of the classroom for 16 months. I have never worked in anything remotely like a corporate environment. I'll be starting from zero or close to it in a lot of ways, and seriously out of my comfort zone. However, I relish that kind of position and feel like it's the only sure way to grow.

One of the things I think I look forward to the most is the upcoming summer (2017). I will not be teaching, conducting research, or working really in any sort of way other than on side projects. My main focus will be on spending as much time at the beach with my kids as possible, hitting the trails with my bike, and reading tons of books. That's the "sabbatical before the sabbatical".

While I'm on sabbatical, I hope to chronicle the experience here at the blog, and I'll still be available for workshops and speaking gigs and the like. This all begins September 5 which will be my first day "on the job". Stay tuned!

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.