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Discussion and Implications for Christian Higher Education

McMurtrie (2018) asks, can you engineer innovation? Can innovation hubs foster systemic change? The University of Dayton’s GEMnasium is in the early stages of answering this question. Those served through Freedom Enterprise, the initial major “spin off” of the GEMnasium, will cam professional development skills, receive assistance with financial poverty, develop positive life behaviors, and gain employment at a variety of partner businesses. The GEMnasium model provides an example of innovation through the lens of Christian higher education, specifically when embracing the concept of a people-forward design in innovation that resonates with both new generations of learners and traditional Christian higher education missions centered in the common good. By combining approaches from community engagement, transdisciplinary research and teaching, and applied creativity, the GEMnasium engineered innovation with purpose grounded in the Catholic and Marianist values for community building, combining faith and reason with the pursuit of social justice.

As Christian higher education continues to wrestle with how to reinvigorate our missions centered in the common good (Dahlvig, 2018) and make them relevant in a changing world, the GEMnasium example offers a new system of innovation and human transformation that is not only economic but also has the resiliency for inclusive results and humanitycentered impact. Flexibility, nimbleness, and the forethought to value uncertainty is crucial if any enterprise is to develop a productive, creative culture. As globally-recognized entrepreneur Mark Cuban said, leaders see the “direction everything is going, and how quickly it’s going” (Umoh, 2018, para. 11). In effect, it is time for people to start viewing creativity and flexible thinking as a valuable skill in transforming the academic and community service collaboration across higher education. Doing so will help our institutions become stronger “anchors through which our communities are strengthened and empowered” (Purcell, 2019, p. 247).

Mobley, Rine, Kcmeny, and Messer (2018) describe a critical function of Christian community development in pursuit of the common good as spanning boundaries that traditionally subdivide stakeholders to co-creatc “shared perspective, shared knowledge, and shared places” (p. 50). From a community engagement perspective, the GEMnasium functions as what Mobley et al. (2018) refer to as a shared space at the intersections between higher education institutions and the communities they serve. Within this context, by foregrounding interdisciplinary approaches, the GEMnasium seeks to foster the creation of new knowledge that not only draws on multiple disciplines but is also co-created and owned by multiple disciplinary perspectives. Finally, these are grounded within a set of facilitation techniques that engage groups in shared processes of applied creativity that situates these groups’ activities and innovations within new-shared perspectives.

The experience of Freedom Enterprises and the GEMnasium suggest that Mobley et al.’s (2018) discussion of place making and boundary setting may be just as vital in the work of a Catholic urban higher education institutions as it was in the work of the evangelical rural institutions they studied. The GEMnasium is a location and approach that focuses on creating shared place, perspectives, and knowledge to further its local commitment to the common good while providing transformational experiences for students.

The University of Dayton’s Vision for the Common Good calls for the development of an ecosystem designed to drive innovation, applied creativity, and entrepreneurial thinking across campus, situated in the university’s Catholic and Marianist identity and mission. The GEMnasium’s flexible, boundary spanning space and responsive framework allows the University of Dayton to educate “at the intersections” through new trans-disciplinary models that bring together students and teachers from across the University to learn and grow. This mosaic of transformative teaching and learning not only elevates the collaboration already occurring on campus, but also opens opportunity for each and every student to explore an innovative experiential learning opportunity for community engagement that will impact real-world challenges in the city of Dayton and beyond. From this lens, we believe that the GEMnasium and Freedom Enterprises example advances a perspective that Christian education can use community engagement approaches that draw on traditional ideals of faith, community, and the common good in order to innovate in ways that are vital to the communities they serve.

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