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Ethical Data Analytics: Investigating Data as a Pedagogical Practice for the Humanities

While data analysis is critical to any research, it is important that users are acutely aware of what is behind the data — including the moral obligations regarding the gathering and protection of the data.  It is recognized that researchers should be informed about ethical sources and uses of data and understand both the potentially marginalized voices and the audiences within the dataset.  Faculty at four 4-VA partner schools (VT, ODU, JMU and Mason) coalesced around the need to raise awareness about the opportunities and limitations in data analytics as an area of research and practice for the field of humanities.  Moreover, they were interested in building a methodological framework for humanities instructors.

As the team saw it, the need for critical data literacy should not be limited to data scientists or engineers. Communicators, designers, developers, artists, historians, and more are asked to make sense of increasingly complex data sets. They were interested in developing practice-oriented pedagogical resources to enable instructors to support students as they seek jobs and internship opportunities throughout the state. In this way, they could add diverse voices to the technology sector and Women in Tech opportunities, especially for students who are not able to afford an engineering degree.

While data analysis is critical to any research, it is important that users are acutely aware of what is behind the data — including the moral obligations regarding the gathering and protection of the data.  It is recognized that researchers should be informed about ethical sources and uses of data and understand both the potentially marginalized voices and the audiences within the dataset.  Faculty at four 4-VA partner schools (VT, ODU, JMU and Mason) coalesced around the need to raise awareness about the opportunities and limitations in data analytics as an area of research and practice for the field of humanities.  Moreover, they were interested in building a methodological framework for humanities instructors.

As the team saw it, the need for critical data literacy should not be limited to data scientists or engineers. Communicators, designers, developers, artists, historians, and more are asked to make sense of increasingly complex data sets. They were interested in developing practice-oriented pedagogical resources to enable instructors to support students as they seek jobs and internship opportunities throughout the state. In this way, they could add diverse voices to the technology sector and Women in Tech opportunities, especially for students who are not able to afford an engineering degree.

The project was led by Mason’s Nupoor Ranade, Assistant Professor in the Department of English.  Ranade was joined by ODU’s Daniel Richards, Associate Professor, Department of English; JMU’s Ja’La Wourman Assistant Professor, School of Writing, Rhetoric & Technical Communication: and VT’s Sweta Baniya, Assistant Professor, Department of English.

Armed with a 4-VA grant, the group set to work on the planning and execution of a one-day workshop for delivery at each of the four campuses.  Targeted attendees included tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty, post-doctoral scholars, graduate teaching and research assistants and graduate students.  The co-PIs acted as organizers at their respective institutions and were present for the workshops.

The workshops were delivered during April 2023 and were very well received, garnering many positive results.  Attendees left the workshops with specifically designed training materials including PowerPoint presentations and handouts.

The team’s next objective was to disseminate the workshop resources and results to the broader community, which came to fruition through their website

They then presented part of their findings at the International Society of Technical Communication’s Summit in Atlanta in May 2023, which resulted in numerous messages from industry practitioners interested in collaborating on further opportunities to add to the research. They have also shared the workshop summary and workshop outcomes at the Association of Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Design of Communication October conference in Orlando, Fla.

“This grant gave Daniel, Ja’La, Sweta and I an opportunity to develop and share concrete pedagogical resources with Virginia faculty (and beyond) that will enable humanities researchers and students incorporate data analytics studies in human-centered audience analysis,” concludes Ranade.  “It looks like this is just the beginning!”


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4-VA Team Develops Communication Center Tutor Training


While Communication Centers on college campuses are a relatively new concept — they were originally introduced to provide student support for basic communication and public speaking courses — over the last 20 years they have exploded in number have expanded offerings to include a wide range of communication skills assistance.  Although the model has been widely credited for a range of student accomplishments, there is a recognition that overburdened faculty charged with operating the centers suffered from the lack of time and resources necessary to create and deliver suitable training materials for tutors. This challenge was faced at the Communication Centers located on several 4-VA campuses — Mason, JMU, and VT.


Shelby Broberg, Communication Center Director on Mason’s Fairfax campus, connected with Paul Mabry, Communication Center Coordinator and Assistant Professor at JMU, and VT’s Brandi Quesenberry, Director of Undergraduate Programs and Zack Sowder, Advanced Instructor and Associate Director at VT’s CommLab to see how they might lessen the training needs bottlenecks using a 4-VA grant.

“Shelby’s vision to work in collaboration with her partners at JMU and Tech exemplifies how 4-VA can work for higher education in Virginia,” says Janette Muir, Vice Provost, Academic Affairs, and 4-VA@Mason Campus Coordinator. “By sharing resources, strengths, and workloads, this team has created a training package that is a valuable tool for both faculty and students.”

The project began with an extensive survey of 53 Communication Center Administrators and 35 Communication Center Consultants. Explains Broberg, “Through our research we were able to conclude that the majority of communication centers in the nation need a more cohesive, effective, and accessible training program for their consultants.”

They then developed open-access training materials with ten modules of interactive content for communication center consultants: “This content was largely sourced and developed by our undergraduate students who participate in training and have extensive experience as the target audience for these educational materials,” noted Broberg.  The students were Sabeen Akhtar, Erandy Cruz-Alcantara, Erin Hess, Fadzayi Sambana, and Kamryn Satterfield from Mason; and Heather Opie, Sara Montgomery, Riley Miller, Grace Warren, and Tessa Cyrus from JMU.

Broberg credited graduate students Briana Stewart, Aditi Goel, and Neha Gour of Mason and Mercy Faleyimu of JMU for leading the undergraduate team.

The project and results were presented at the National Association of Communication Centers (NACC) Conference last spring in Blacksburg, Va, and recently at the National Communication Association conference in National Harbor, Md.  Broberg reports, “The response was really exciting. Directors from centers all across the country were grateful for the new resources to help training be more consistent and reliable nationwide.”

The Communication Center Training Team at the National Communication Association conference — L to R: Mercy Faleyimu (JMU), Brandi Quesenberry (VT), Shelby Broberg (Mason) Zack Sowder (JMU)

The 4-VA project will now be extended to two other areas identified as needing support within Communication Centers — working with multilingual clients and STEM related content. “This is somewhat unsurprising as our college campuses continue to become more linguistically diverse and current trends of popular majors include STEM-related studies,” says Broberg.

“We believe these resources will meet a crucial need for Communication Centers to train their consultants to provide expert feedback to the diverse needs of students we see on campuses across the country,” concludes Broberg. “Participants have been incredibly enthusiastic and there has been a great deal of interest in the outcomes of our 4-VA supported research.”


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4-VA@Mason Funding Smartphone App to Support Transfer Students


Over the past 10 years, 4-VA@Mason has bolstered efforts to smooth the transition for first-generation transfer students from NOVA to Mason via roles in ADVANCE, developing the Bachelor of Applied Science program, and aligning course subject content and objectives between NOVA and Mason.  It was natural, then, for 4-VA@Mason to step in to fund a proposal for a novel smartphone-based augmented reality campus tour of Mason to help traditionally underserved transfer students.

The concept is being led by Kelly Schrum, a professor in Mason’s Higher Education Program in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.  Schrum has brought together a group of faculty members, undergraduate, and graduate students to put the plan into action. In addition, representatives from ADVANCE, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, and the First-Gen+ Center will also play a role in the project.

After reviewing the considerable research on common challenges facing transfer students, including the need to feel connected and find community, the group is developing a prototype of the app for prospective students to download. “After much research, we believe that an app of this type can go a long way to help make our transfer students more comfortable in the new Mason environment,” explains Schrum.  “We are so pleased with the initial enthusiastic reception from students as well as our partners in this effort.”

Through the app, students will ‘meet’ a virtual character — wearing a First Gen Mason T-shirt — who welcomes them to Mason.  Students will see a virtual panel where they will find questions and answers from current students and be invited to add their voice to the conversation.  Encouraging words from the First Gen+ Center will appear on the screen, such as “You are the first, but you won’t be the last.”

The virtual character will encourage the student to walk toward the Johnson Center where a simulated First Gen+ table is set up for an ice cream social. The student will create a sundae — with Mason colors — while interacting with the character who will share fun facts about Mason regarding first gen transfer students and provide an overview of events and activities hosted by the First Gen+ Center. The student can ask questions, powered by a chatbot, and can also submit more personalized or in-depth questions that will be directed to the right department, such as Admissions or Success Coaching, all designed to make the students more comfortable with campus and their fellow students.

The prototype is being tested this winter with prospective students in coordination with ADVANCE. The Admissions office will distribute flyers about the app, place them in bags for transfer students, and highlight the app on transfer student tours.

“This is a great opportunity to help our new transfer students feel more comfortable with their transition to Mason, and get them off to the right start,” says Janette Muir, Vice Provost, Academic Affairs and 4-VA@Mason Campus Coordinator.

Following the beta testing, Schrum’s team will collect and analyze data with the goal of improving and expanding the prototype, contributing to scholarly research on using technology to improve student success, and applying for external funding.

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Mason Study Aims to Reduce Avian Window Collision Mortality

Ornithologists, ecologists, environmentalists in the Mason Nation, and many others will welcome the findings of one of the most expansive survey-based studies to date designed to reduce avian window collision mortality. Avian window collisions are a national concern, with estimates of avian mortality between 300 million to one billion birds every year in the United States. The investigation, conducted over the past 12 months on multiple Mason campuses, was led by Biology Professor Daniel Hanley and his co-PI David Luther, with support from collaborator John Swaddle at William and Mary. Most significantly, the study has identified a critical factor — the gloss of the windows – as playing a significant role in avian window collisions and is the first research of its kind to make this important link.

Daniel Hanley
David Luther

The study was funded with a grant from 4-VA@Mason, as part of 4-VA’s commitment to help launch pilot explorations which support collaborations of faculty in higher education throughout the commonwealth.  The 4-VA research also encourages opportunities for student research that can make a positive difference for Virginia and beyond.

Jamison teaches students about window strikes at a volunteer event on the Fairfax campus


Smith distributes information to raise awareness about the project at one of two events he led during Global Bird Rescue Week.

Hanley explains, “Through a large-scale Mason community effort, we conducted one of the most comprehensive investigations on this subject. We completed 3,415 surveys across multiple Mason campuses — 3,017 on the main Fairfax campus alone — and found 82 total fatal collisions, with 62 at the Fairfax campus.” The surveys were undertaken by a team of more than 40 volunteer undergraduate students under the direction of graduate students Quentin Jamison and Shawn Smith.

“On our Fairfax campus, the strikes were not clustered in any particular area. Instead, we found that certain buildings were more problematic than others. Not surprisingly, buildings with greater glass coverage experienced more fatal window strikes, as this has been documented before,” notes Hanley.

Smith documents a window strike mortality event during a citizen science walk.
Smith shares avian insights with volunteers using the Lab’s teaching collection.

The researchers recorded the abundance of window strikes within the campus interior. Horizon Hall and Southside posed the greatest risk on the Fairfax campus, however, Exploratory and Thompson Halls also had a large number of strikes.

The core of the study considered the reflective properties of windows on 34 buildings as well as the proportion of glass on each side of these buildings. The team implemented a model to determine which factor could predict the count of fatal avian window strikes. “We used high-end glossmeters — Rhopoint IQ — to quantify the degree to which the glass reflects light and images to on-coming birds. There have been very few studies that have experimentally measured these features of glass. Therefore, our study provides a critical baseline for future endeavors in this field,” says Hanley.

The team coordinated with Mason Facilities, the Patriot Green Fund, and other interested parties. Further, they aligned with researchers and students at Virginia Tech, Radford, Bridgewater College, and William & Mary who are tracking fatal window collisions on their campuses. Additionally, outside organizations including the Virginia Master Naturalists and the Virginia Chapter of The Wildlife Society participated. Through this 4-VA supported research, PIs Hanley and Luther aim to greatly reduce window strikes throughout Mason campuses.

Jamison presented the project at the 2023 annual meeting of The Wildlife Society’s Virginia Chapter.

Graduate student researcher Jamison presented preliminary study results at the annual winter meeting of the Virginia Chapter of the Wildlife Society and, as a result, the group is now building a consortium on causes of window strikes and methods of reduction among researchers at the other universities in Virginia. Jamison presented at the American Ornithological Society conference in Ontario, Canada this summer as well.

Jamison at the American Ornithological conference.


There’s more to come.  “We have a draft manuscript on the topic, in collaboration with Dr. Swaddle from William and Mary, which will be submitted to a peer reviewed journal later this year,” notes Hanley.  “We are now focusing on the sensory perception aspect of avian vision and understanding how birds see the glass (or not) while flying in order to design methods to make the glass more obvious to the birds so that collisions are reduced.” This research could result in external funding from energy companies and developers to install avian collision avoidance systems on their infrastructures — wind turbines, power lines, transformers, and buildings.

More than forty undergraduate students participated on the project, including: Aaidah Nizumudeen, Aaron Amin, Aaron Morton, Alexander Perez, Amal Ahmad, Ari Masters, Carolina Sanabria, Caroline Tate, Caty McVicker, Chloe Fowler, Deena Chouf, Eatha Lynch, Elham Sarangi, Emily Le Bron, Grace Rapoza, Grace Shimizu, Holly Haw, Hye Jeong Kim, Jessica Winey, Jordan Bertaux, Jordan Davis, Kaitlyn Moore, Kate Mateyka, Katie Russel, Kennedy Ream, Kiersten Jewell, Maddy Gonzalez, Merri Collins, Mohammad Alaadhab, Morgan O’Donnel, Natali Walker, Nibal Negib, Nimra Kashif, Quinn Griffin, Raina Saha, Ruth Leilago, Sameer Jame, Sara Abarra, Sarah Weikel, Trent Gasso, and Zahra Slimani.

Virginia Tech undergraduate students Madeline Alt and Rachel Morse also shared expertise from years of surveys on their campus.

“We couldn’t have pulled all this together without the 4-VA@Mason funding,” concludes Hanley.  “This was a significant undertaking, and we needed the time and space to get this done right.  We believe this is just the beginning of what we hope will be a turning point in reducing avian collision mortality.”

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4-VA@Mason Awards Funding for 12 Promising Investigations Led by Mason Faculty plus Eight Additional Collaborations for Mason Co-PIs


4-VA@Mason, announces the Collaborative Research Awards for the 23-24 academic year — with 12 projects spearheaded by Mason faculty, and eight for Mason faculty acting as Co-PIs.  “These 4-VA@Mason Collaborative Research Grants are the core of what our state program is all about — providing seed funding to encourage faculty from our eight partner schools to launch novel research efforts and build critical relationships among the institutions,” said Janette Kenner Muir, Vice Provost, Academic Affairs and Campus Coordinator of 4-VA@Mason.

Approved proposals were from a range of colleges at Mason including the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Computer Game Design/Virginia Serious Game Institute; the College of Humanities and Social Sciences; the College of Engineering and Computing; and the College of Science.

One proposal funded this year is Dr. Chris Jones’ work, Using Taxonomic, Pigment, and Molecular Analysis to Characterize Algal Blooms in the Shenandoah River. Professor Jones, a member of the Environmental Science & Policy Department and Director of the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center, has already seen the benefit of 4-VA support with growing research projects focused on harmful algal blooms that threaten Virginia’s Shenandoah River and also plague waters throughout the world. In the Shenandoah, these blooms originally consisted of green algae, which while troublesome for recreational activities, did not present a danger to humans and wildlife.  In the past two years, however, the blooms have included cyanobacteria that contain toxins.  Environmental engineers recognize that it is critical to identify the toxic bacteria quickly and definitively, but current methodologies are inadequate.  Jones’ team of Mason faculty and students, together with their partners at Old Dominion University, will tackle this important challenge.

The following are the 4-VA@Mason 2023-24 Collaborative Research Grant winners, with partner schools in parentheses.

  • Akerlof, Karen Bridging Science and Policy in the States: A Study of Emerging Mechanisms to Train Scientists and Engineers (VT)
  • Enfield, Jacob MySQL Murder Mystery (VMI)
  • Furst, Kirin Emlet The role of the air-water interface in breakthrough of PFAS and phthalate esters during wastewater treatment (VT)
  • Jones, R Christian Using Taxonomic, Pigment and Molecular Analysis to Characterize Algal Blooms in the Shenandoah River   (ODU)
  • Kang, Pilgyu Machine learning assisted laser manufacturing of alloy nanoparticle graphene hybrid materials for high performance hydrogen sensing (UVA)
  • LaFrance, Michelle The Virginia Community and Public Writing Collaborative (JMU, VCU, VT, UVA)
  • Lawrence, Heidi A Rhetorical Approach to Challenges in Blood Donation (VT)
  • Raffegeau, Tiphanie Using Virtual Reality to Study Cognitive and Affective Risk Factors for Falls in Older Adults (ODU)
  • Straus, David The Role of Diabatic Heating in Determining Atlantic Storm Paths (UVA)
  • Van Aken, Benoit Protection of RNA by Association with Macromolecules Implications for Wastewater Based Epidemiology (VT)
  • Yu, Yun Nanoscale Visualization of Electrocatalytic Carbon Dioxide Reduction Activity at Cu Nanocatalysts (UVA)
  • Zhu, Ziwei Towards Consolidated and Dynamic Debiasing for Online Search and Recommendation (VT)

The following Mason faculty received funding as Co-PIs collaborating with other 4-VA institutions in parentheses:

  • Chowdhury, Ahsan The Commonwealth Proofs Project Collaborative: Promoting Students’ Understanding of Logical Implications and their Transformations (VT)
  • Dromgold-Sermen, Michelle New American Resources: Partnerships and Initiatives at Virginia Higher Education Institutions to Strengthen Virginia’s Migration Support (VT)
  • Jing, Hao Acoustics-enabled Noncontact Manipulation, Patterning, and Assembly of Complex-shaped Micro/nanoparticles for Advance Manufacturing (VT)
  • LaToza, Thomas Visualizing Code Changes to Understand Students’ Mental Models in Programming Education at Scale (VT)
  • Stone, Victoria Increasing Mental Health Services in K-12 Settings by Helping Provisionally Licensed School Counselors Meet the Requirements for Full Licensure as Professional School Counselors in Virginia (JMU)
  • Stone, Victoria Supporting K-12 Students after Psychiatric Hospitalizations: Piloting Mixed Reality Simulation Training for School Mental Health Professionals (UVA)
  • Van Aken, Benoit Hyperspectral imaging for the real-time detection of microplastic particles in seafoods (VT)
  • Zhu, Ziwei Break the Dilemmas between Model Performance and Fairness: A Holistic Solution for Fairness Learning on Graphs (VT)

“We are looking forward to the new discoveries we will find with these 4-VA collaborative projects,” comments Vice Provost Muir, “Our faculty, students, and the Commonwealth of Virginia will benefit from these partnerships as the schools approach the work from their own perspectives and strengths, building solid partnerships for future initiatives.”




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4-VA@Mason Computing Team Gets Ahead of the Game


While some professors worry that they are two steps behind technology, scholars in Mason’s Department of Computer Science pride themselves on staying two steps ahead.  However, that wasn’t enough for Associate Professor Bo Han, who wanted to deepen the educational experience for students.

When Han’s proposal “Innovating Point Cloud Processing for Networked Systems” was approved for pilot funding by 4-VA@Mason, he brought together co-PI Felix Xiaozhu Lin, Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science in the UVA School of Engineering, specialists from the University of Minnesota (UM), the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), and graduate and undergraduate students taking his new class.

It was an “all-hands-on-deck” project with each of the team members tackling a variety of challenges, resulting in the delivery of a product they dubbed DeepMix, a mobility-aware, lightweight, and hybrid 3D object detection framework. A unique feature of DeepMix is that it fully utilizes the mobility of headsets to fine-tune detection results and boosts detection precision. In fact, when Han’s team implemented a prototype of DeepMix on Microsoft HoloLens and evaluated its performance through both extensive controlled experiments and a user study with more than 30 participants, DeepMix not only improved detection accuracy by 9.1 to 37.3% but significantly boosted detection accuracy in mobile scenarios.

Han credits the success of this project to his collaboration with partners at UVA, UM, NJIT, and especially his students.  These include graduate students Nan Wu, who led the design and implementation of point cloud super-resolution for 3D object detection; along with Ruizhi Cheng and Puqi Zhou, who worked on the implementation and evaluation of gaze-assisted motion prediction for point cloud streaming. Undergraduate student Jing Wang also participated in the project, handling the implementation of the back-end system for image-based localization to improve the accuracy of pose estimation and motion prediction for point cloud streaming.

Pictured: Nan Wu presenting one of the project’s resultant published papers at the Association for Computing Machinery HotMobile 2022 workshop.

“This project was high intensity, multi-faceted, and challenging, but thanks to our 4-VA@Mason grant we were able to develop a great team and produce concrete results,” says Han.  “Now, we want to move our technology to the next level and build interactive holographic communication systems for truly immersive remote collaboration based on mixed reality.




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Providing Support for Student Activists: Advocating for Advocates


Student activism is credited with bringing positive change for political, environmental, economic, and social causes on college campuses. It is recognized, however, that students’ time devoted to organizing and engaging for their cause while balancing coursework and college life can result in burnout. Long overlooked, Mason’s School of Integrative Studies Professor Cher Weixia Chen saw the need to identify and address the stress facing student activists.

Chen wanted to explore the conceptualizations, symptoms, and remedies associated with activists and identify intervention tools for improving their well-being. To attend to the needs of these community members, Chen applied for and received a 4-VA@Mason Collaborative Research Grant “Understanding & Supporting the Well-Being of College-Level Social Justice & Human Rights Advocates/Activists in the State of Virginia.” Chen’s colleagues included Graziella Pagliarulo McCarron, Assistant Professor, School of Integrative Studies, at Mason; Steve Grande, Director of the Office of Community Service-Learning at James Madison University (JMU); and Melody Porter, Director of Office of Community Engagement at the College of William & Mary (WM). They worked together to develop a multi-pronged approach to tackling this issue. Volunteering their work on the project were Taimi Castle, Professor of Justice Studies and director of the JMU Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence, and Lisa Porter, Associate Professor of Sociology at JMU.

After intensive training, the student researchers were able to recruit student activists, conduct interviews, analyze data, and begin preparing a manuscript under the guidance of the faculty team. Student researchers on the project included Kendall Cage, Mireya Campuzano, and Rafaela Lucioni at Mason, Cristal Badu from WM, and Brenda Goodson from JMU.

The team’s initial task was to learn what college student activists face through in-depth personal interviews. Explains Chen, “We found that burnout is prevalent among student activists. They experienced anxiety, panic, depression, hopelessness, or guilt – feeling physically and mentally exhausted. They felt pressure to keep laboring, advocating, organizing, and marching despite their own needs or limits. The difficulty in balancing school, family, and activism and the lack of perceived support for activist work and/or training to do the work at the institutional level all contributed to their burnout.”

With the preliminary findings, faculty and student researchers then designed and organized a Fall 2022 workshop titled “Renewal and Resilience: A Community of Student Activists,” which featured student activists fighting for food security, prison reform, racial justice, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, and gun control at Mason, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Following the student activist panel, Castle presented “Regenerating the Self,” encouraging participants to assess their well-being with the help of a self-care workbook. Participants were also encouraged to create their own maintenance plans to help in times of stress. Lisa Porter concluded the program by sharing an interview with Crimson Solano, a community leader of Harrisonburg-based Comité Salvadoreño Paisanos Unidos, a pro-immigrant policy advocate group.

Now, the team is in dissemination mode. The project was featured at  They are developing a virtual community with the Human Rights and Global Justice Initiative for student activists, which is under construction in conjunction with Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth. They have also submitted a book proposal on the well-being of student activists and are in the process of identifying external grants to expand this research further.

“This 4-VA@Mason grant helped us take a big step forward to take care of student leaders on our college campuses in Virginia. Without them, positive steps toward change are in peril,” says Chen. “It helped us take a critical look at where we can go from here. There is much more to be done.”

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Best Practices for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Identified and Shared Statewide


Effective teaching is a cornerstone of Virginia higher education. To attain that critical bar, it is essential that successful teaching strategies are created and maintained, and that they meet students’ needs.  This necessitates classroom-based research — known as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Faculty-focused SoTL research achieves multiple objectives including identifying best practices in educational strategies for a specific field and promoting a university’s overall teaching excellence.

While SoTL is crucial to gain a greater understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom, very few faculty are prepared to conduct such research independently. Thus, support for SoTL frequently falls to campus Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTLs). CTLs are generally small and tasked with a wide range of faculty assistance, so identifying appropriate SoTL strategies presents a time and resource challenge.

This dilemma faced the Stearns Center at Mason as well as three other 4-VA schools — Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech, and the University of Virginia.  Each wanted to address the SoTL gap. The solution was recognized via a 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant, allowing the schools to work together to create sustainable SoTL programming.  The goal was to create or refine plans for engaging and supporting faculty in SoTL at their specific institutions, to develop and investigate the impact of cross-institutional support programming for faculty developers, and ultimately improve the research competitiveness of faculty at each institution. Although not part of the 4-VA partnership, the prospect of such work also attracted the attention of faculty at Mary Washington University who were interested in joining the effort.

Led by the Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning Director, Shelley Reid, with key support from Mason graduate assistant Sophia Abbot, the team represented a state-wide effort, including Ed Brantmeier, Interim Executive Director/Assistant Director of the Center for Faculty Innovation (JMU); Dayna Henry Assistant Director of the Scholarship Area at the Center for Faculty Innovation (JMU); Kim Case, Director of Faculty Success (VCU); Kim Filer, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Development/Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (VT); Lindsay Wheeler, Assistant Director of STEM Education Initiatives at the Center for Teaching Excellence and Jessica Taggart, Postdoctoral Research Associate (UVA);  and Melissa Wells, Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow of the Center for Teaching (Mary Washington). “Through our 4-VA@Mason grant, as well as the Complementary Grants at our 4-VA partner schools, we saw an opportunity to help CTLs avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’ in a key area of faculty support,” explained Reid. “SoTL is a growth area for CTLs, and this grant provided an opportunity to design that growth intentionally and collaboratively—and then to share the model with other CTLs nationally.”

Together, the group researched and built effective support structures for SoTL training. As a “community of practice,” the group met regularly to exchange strategies already in use and constructed additional strategies and resources for both CTL leaders and faculty. Next, they developed and presented workshops for national and local audiences to guide other CTL leaders in building collaborative structures. At these workshops, attendees learned about evidence-based models, common SoTL support programming across institution types, and received peer feedback on their plans. Presentations were made at the Professional & Organizational Development in Higher Education Network Conference, the International Consortium for Educational Development, the Innovations in Teaching and Learning Conference (Mason), the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy (VT), and an online workshop for SCHEV (VCU).

Next, the team created online resources, an open access trove of tools for SoTL developers, including a Taxonomy of common language and organizational structure for understanding a variety of SoTL program models — organized by program type with a detailed description of each model. It also includes examples to further support readers’ envisioning of program possibilities. Further, visitors can access a strategic plan worksheet, which guides SoTL developers through the details of their aspirational and future plans in the context of their institution and provides a venue to receive peer feedback on specific aspects of their plan.

The group continues to spread the word about effective SoTL practices through the following publications:

  • International Journal of Academic Development Impact of a Regional Community of Practice for Academic Developers Engaged in Institution-Level Support for SoTL (Lukes, Abbot, Henry, Wells, Baum, Case, Brantmeier, & Wheeler)
  • To Improve the Academy Strategic Planning Tools for Educational Developers Supporting SoTL Cultures and Programs at their Institutions (Lukes, Abbot, Wheeler, Henry, Case, Wells, Brantmeier)
  • New Directions for Teaching and Learning Examining a Regional Educational Developer Community of Practice for Advancing Institutional Cultures of SoTL Engagement (Abbot, Lukes, Baum, Case, Henry, Brantmeier, Wheeler)

“Our team members have been particularly excited about the positive reception of the collaborative model through the well-attended national workshops. We’re looking forward to the conversations that are made possible through the multiple publications that will increase our audience and enable other CTLs to build their own collaborations.” concludes Reid.

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Communication Across the Curriculum: Developing Faculty Resources to Enhance Student Success

Communication competency is recognized as one of the most important skills for a successful college and professional career. To support this outcome, writing courses have long been a requirement in higher education to bolster communication proficiency.  More recently, additional efforts have been developed to provide students with a larger framework, including the creation of Communication Centers on college campuses — rising from a grassroots movement in the 1980s to a more defined role in the early 2000s.

Today, colleges recognize the need for further multiple, scaffolded opportunities to practice language and presentation skills throughout a student’s academic lifespan. This includes learning oral and written skills found within their chosen career track. Such an approach, known as communication across the curriculum (CxC), enhances opportunities for students to both strengthen their communication abilities and to employ in-depth content area specifics.  Regrettably, however, many subject matter faculty feel ill-equipped and unsupported in their efforts to integrate communication into course curricula, expressing a need for more teaching assistance to provide student feedback on a range of communication skills — presentations, team projects, interpersonal skills — within the course framework.


Mason’s Melissa Broeckelman-Post, Professor and the Basic Course Director in the Department of Communication saw a need to intervene.  This thinking was shared by Broeckelman-Post’s colleagues at two other 4-VA partner schools — Virginia Tech’s Director of Undergraduate Programs and Senior Instructor in the School of Communication Brandi Quesenberry, and JMU’s Associate Professor in the School of Communication Studies and Basic Course Director Timothy Ball. They had connected at previous conferences and were sharing ideas on CxC but saw a 4-VA grant as an opportunity to concretely collaborate on scholarship that would be helpful for all institutions.

Together, they wanted to look more closely at what would be needed to develop a CxC program at each of their schools.  It was the 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant that allowed them to begin this important work.

“We knew that faculty members would greatly benefit with tools and techniques to provide their students feedback on the range of communication skills within their disciplines, including oral, written, team building, intercultural, and leadership,” explains Broeckelman-Post. “The first step in our plan was to reach out to Stephanie Norander, Executive Director of one of the nation’s leading CxC programs at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to ensure that we utilize the best practices in building resources that will be effective for faculty on our campuses.”


From there, Broeckelman-Post, Quesenberry and Ball, assembled a team of graduate students at Mason, (Adebanke Adebayo, Aayushi Hingle, Lane Schwager, Shannon Taylor Heflin, Briana Stewart, and Sammi Tuckerman Munson) Virginia Tech (Emma Baumgardner) and JMU (Selim Njeim).  Their goal was to create a robust set of flexible tools to support faculty and student learning, including online resources, individual and small group faculty curriculum consultations, and in-class workshops to help faculty embed communication skills development within their disciplinary courses that can be shared across the institutions.

Before they began, the CxC team needed a greater understanding of just what faculty in a variety of disciplines perceived as important communication skills and what they believed to be helpful for their courses.  Three research question were developed:

  • RQ1: How do faculty across disciplines perceive and value communication?
  • RQ2: What types of support do faculty across disciplines need to incorporate communication assignments in their classes?
  • RQ3: What are the most important communication skills employers across disciplines are seeking?

Faculty at all three universities were invited to join in an online study, with 232 accepting the offer. Participants represented a wide range of departments, including the social sciences, engineering and computing, health and human services, business and interdisciplinary or unspecified areas. Through the survey, a greater insight as to what aspects of communication that were important to faculty and for student’s careers was established. Notes Quesenberry, “While the results pointed us to the development of concrete communications packages, we were struck by the fact that 93.2% of all faculty identified communication as “extremely important” or “very important” to their major’s discipline.”  The CxC team knew that their work was needed.

A comprehensive overview of the faculty research survey was recently published in Communication Education, with all team members who contributed to the research component of the project receiving authorship credit. Another goal of the project was to create a website with communication resources for faculty across disciplines.  This robust site is now populated with a broad variety of tools to assist faculty to aid students with a range of projects including designing oral presentations, presentation performance and delivery, adapting presentations for audiences, and interviews:

The findings were shared at two different presentations at the National Communication Association annual convention.  They now plan presentations at additional local conferences including Mason’s Innovations in Teaching and Learning.


“Thanks to this collaboration, we were able to develop some important tools to build effective CxC programs at all three of our universities,” notes Ball.  “That’s a win for Virginia’s faculty and students.”


CRG Stories Featured Stories Grant Stories News

Five 4-VA Schools Collaborate to Better Understand the History of Higher Education


The Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education lists the History of Higher Education as an important core course that provides students the opportunity to bridge practice and theory. However, the class is rarely taught by historians and often lacks a focus on the historical thinking, research, and digital literacy skills necessary for a clear-eyed understanding of the higher education landscape.

This dilemma was on the mind of historian Kelly Schrum, Professor, Higher Education Program, and Affiliated Faculty in the Department of History and Art History at Mason.  It also concerned her colleague in the Higher Education Program at Virginia Tech, Assistant Professor, Chase Catalano. Together, via an initial 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant in 2020-2021, they wanted to integrate those missing skills into the class with the hope of increasing research opportunities and creating a valuable open educational resource (OER).

The project, launched during the pandemic, consisted of students at Mason and VT working together and in parallel to learn about the history of higher education while developing historical thinking and research skills.

The project was a great success. “The student-created asynchronous learning activity assignment worked very well, and fostered a true collaboration across our institutions,” said Schrum. In addition to the learning activity assignments, students and faculty contributed to a website,; piloted a primary source learning activity in two different higher education graduate courses during Fall 2020; and expanded the project to a third course in Spring 2021.

Schrum, Catalano, and Sophia Abbot, a doctoral student at Mason, grew this work into a larger research project on teaching and learning the history of higher education. Thirty-five students agreed to share their work for analysis and 24 were interviewed after completing the course. The survey and interview data made clear that students appreciated the value and relevance of studying the history of higher education for both their curricular and professional goals. One student explained, “We were able to take what we learned in the course and apply it to the project in a way that was very effortless, and that really helped me think about history in a different way.”

The group presented their initial findings at the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy in February 2021 which were very well received. They then began talking with colleagues around the commonwealth at William & Mary, James Madison University, and Old Dominion University. Their shared interest in improving history of higher education courses prompted Schrum to apply for an extension and expansion of the Collaborative Research Grant. Schrum’s co-PIs at the partner schools requested 4-VA Complementary Grants at their institutions allowing continued work together with a wider lens.

The expansion grant enlarged the initial team to include Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education Ben Boone of W&M; Art Dean, Executive Director for Access and Inclusion, JMU; Kim Bullington, ODU’s Adjunct Assistant Professor, Educational Foundations and Leadership; and ODU’s Director of Community Outreach & Engagement, Bill Nuckols.

In addition to Abbot, key Mason student scholars on the project included graduate students Allison Loughry and Alicia Ellis, and undergrads Sodaba Azamy and Kelly Tcheou. These students contributed to research, website development, and publications.

The 4-VA extension grant had four key components: 1) collaborate with 4-VA institutions to improve teaching and learning about the history of higher education, and to teach a shared digital assignment;2) expand OER resources on the history of higher education in the United States to provide primary sources, secondary sources, and a database of college and university archives; 3) conduct research on how the history of higher education is taught nationally; and 4) conduct Scholarship of Teaching and Learning research on how students learn historical thinking skills and digital skills as they create asynchronous learning activities on this subject.

With the expansion grant in hand, the Mason, Tech, W&M, and JMU faculty members taught the shared assignment in Fall 2021. Students also explored asynchronous primary source learning activities created by students at all four institutions. ODU taught the shared assignment in Summer 2022. Students at ODU explored primary source learning activities created by students at the other institutions and then developed additional resources which will be shared across institutions in future semesters. Between the five institutions, more than 100 students built individual asynchronous primary source learning activities. Selected activities are publicly available at

Sophia Abbot

Explains Abbot, “I developed countless skills while collaborating on this project: from deepening my own understanding of the history of higher education and the value of primary sources, to engaging students in authentic, student-driven, project-based assignments. I’ve been inspired by the historical research students have done through this cross-institutional assignment, especially on Virginia institutions—uncovering stories that are rarely told in commonly assigned texts and expanding their understanding of the colleges and universities within which they operate,”

Each school contributed OER materials for the website. In addition to primary and secondary sources, the website now contains a database of institutional archives with digitized content, including yearbooks. Thanks to the two undergraduate research assistants, Azamy and Tcheo, over 700 institutional archives were cataloged on the site, including 48 Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), 24 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and 15 women’s colleges. Additionally, the list includes 63 community colleges which is especially important given the lack of attention to these institutions historically.

Azamy and Tcheo have also reviewed and analyzed 70 course syllabi submitted by History of Higher Education instructors across the U.S. They prepared a summary report of common readings and course topics. Their findings supported several academic articles now underway addressing how these courses are typically structured and taught. Their work, along with that of Loughry, also supported a grant proposal submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Institute for Higher Education Faculty program.

The team credits the 4-VA grant for allowing members to do the diligent research necessary to create these important resources.

“This 4-VA project fostered meaningful and lasting collaboration across five Virginia institutions. While each university approached the history of higher education course from its own perspective, we were able to work together on a shared assignment that allowed for a rich learning experience among faculty and students across campuses. The results speak for themselves!” – Kelly Schrum, Professor, Higher Education Program, Affiliated Faculty, History and Art History, Mason


“I sincerely appreciated having an opportunity to collaborate with colleagues across the state for this 4-VA project. Through our conversations and research, I developed new pedagogical approaches that benefited students and deepened my thinking about the history of higher education.”
– Chase Catalano, Assistant Professor, Higher Education, VT


“We really enjoyed being part of this effort to expand student research on the history of higher education. Everyone came away from this project with a deeper understanding of how important it is to develop critical thinking skills and to look beyond our own institutions.”
– Ben Boone, Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education, W&M


“The website, which holds a treasure trove of student research and engagement from a wide range of institutions, will be invaluable as we move ahead in studying the complex and influential histories of American higher education.”
– Art Dean, Executive Director for Access, and Inclusion, JMU



“When this asynchronous learning project was first introduced to the students, they were thrilled at the thought of not having to write a 20-page paper, however in the end, they did more work doing research on their chosen subject. They enjoyed this project because it allowed them a space for research and reflection, and it taught them how to create an interactive learning environment in an asynchronous environment. Being able to evaluate and participate in the projects created by other students in other universities across Virginia also taught them about their peers’ projects, too.”
– Kim Bullington, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Educational Foundations and Leadership, ODU


Scholarly Conference Presentations

Catalano, C. & Hernandez, R. (2022, March). Why do we teach history? Instructor and student perspectives. ACPA-College Student Educators Conference, St. Louis, MO, United States.

Schrum, K., Abbot, S., & Catalano, C. (2022, January 6-9). History of Higher Education: Students Making Sense of Primary Sources by Designing Asynchronous Learning Activities [Poster]. American Historical Association, New Orleans, LA, United States.

Abbot, S., Schrum, K., & Catalano, C. (2021, November 13-15). Teaching Historical Thinking to Higher Education Graduate Students [Poster]. Southern Association for College Student Affairs, Norfolk, VA, United States.

Abbot, S., Schrum, K., Hernandez, R., Fong, W. L., & Loughry, A. (2021, October 26-29). Designing Digital Activities for Authentic Learning [Panel, Virtual]. International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Conference.

Schrum, K. & Abbot, S. (2021, September 20-24). On-Demand: Engaging students online through a peer-to-peer asynchronous teaching assignment [On-Demand Presentation, Virtual]. Innovations in Teaching and Learning, Fairfax, VA, United States.

Abbot, S. (2021, September 20-24). SoTL Showcase [Panel, Virtual]. Innovations in Teaching and Learning, Fairfax, VA, United States.

Abbot, S., Schrum, K., & Catalano, C. (2021, February 3-5). Graduate Students Learning and Teaching History through Asynchronous Activities [Poster session, virtual]. Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy, Blacksburg, VA, United States.


Catalano, D., Schrum, K., Fay, E., & Abbot, S. (forthcoming, 2023). ‘I can learn from the past’: Making the history of higher education relevant through social justice education pedagogy. The History Teacher.

Loughry, A., Abbot, S., Schrum, K., & Catalano, D. (forthcoming 2023). Developing digital skills through a student-facilitated asynchronous learning activity. The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.

Schrum, K., Abbot, S., Loughry, A., & Catalano, D. (forthcoming 2024). “I wanted to know!”: Engaging learners in the history of higher education through an authentic digital assessment. The History Teacher.

Schrum, K, Abbot, S., Fay, E., Loughry, A., & Catalano, C. (in process). Teaching historical thinking through the history of higher education.

External Funding

“Unpacking the History of Higher Education in the United States.”
National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Institute for Higher Education Faculty award.

Provost’s Graduate Student Travel Grant (January 2022)
American Historical Association Travel Grant (January 2022)
Southern Association of College Student Affairs Travel Grant (November 2021)