10 Questions from The League for Innovation in the Community College


Beyond the standard professional vitae, have you ever wondered what books leaders in higher education are reading? Or, more personally, who had the greatest impact in their life achievements? Tune in to 10 Questions to Leadership and preview these professional, candid, and intriguing responses from leaders in a variety of roles.

Darien Ripple

Ten Questions to Darien Ripple Experiential Learning Program Manager University of Baltimore

Darien Ripple is the new Experiential Learning Program Manager at the University of Baltimore (UB). Prior to accepting his position at UB in the spring of 2014, he was at Chandler-Gilbert Community College serving as a philosophy faculty member, coordinator of the Sustainability and Ecological Literacy program, and Director of the Environmental Technology Center. Ripple earned a Ph.D. in sustainability education writing his dissertation on the relationship of international education to transformational learning and environmental sustainability. He has received a variety of scholarly grants, including a Fulbright Scholarship to study globalization in Mexico and Belize, a Perkin’s Work Place grant studying ground water contamination, and a Maricopa Institute for Learning Fellowship.

1. What obstacles does the ‘next gen’ face in environmentalism and ecology beyond the baby boomer age?

When I teach Environmental Ethics, I inform my students that they are now living on a

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planet that is attempting to support a human population of over seven billion people. Their world is vastly different than the post World War II Earth that the Baby Boomer generation inherited, with just two billion people. By 2025, the population will most likely be around eight billion, with eighty percent living in the poorest countries. So, there are many obstacles if developed nations like the United States want to continue living a lifestyle that cannot be supported by a finite planet.

  1. How do you define your work in “confronting environmental nihilism in higher education”?

    My research in sustainability education focuses on trends in society that have created a generation of learners that is alienated from a direct relationship with nature. I normally refer to environmental nihilism as an existential isolation from nature and others that is associated with modernity. I argue that if we want college students to understand sustainability, it is imperative that institutions of higher learning go beyond the passive learning practices of lecture-based education. We instead need to engage students in learning activities that provide connections with their local eco-systems. This can be achieved by collaborative learning projects that are problem-based inquiries confronting such topics of species extinction, local energy use, and ecological literacy.

  2. How can faculty, staff, and administrators support learners in gaining a new appreciation and participating in service work for environmental development and sustainability?

    I think experiential learning is the key to having students transform in their understanding of environmental sustainability. Colleges and universities need to create centers of learning that focus on real problems associated with the formation of sustainable societies. Students should be encouraged to question the accepted paradigm of growth. And, faculty ought to focus on learning assignments that critically question the missions and objectives of universities and local communities.

  3. What data can you share that support program development for colleges to initiate innovative and proven environmental projects?

    I had the good fortune to serve as a Maricopa Institute for Learning Fellow, which allowed me the opportunity to engage in research focused on applied experiential learning practices in my Environmental Ethics courses. My fellowship research was published in the spring 2013 issue of the Journal of Sustainability Education (JSE), and titled, Sustainability Education and Environmental Nihilism: Transforming Suburbia through Experiential Learning. I mention this article because the main focus was not on grades and retention, but that I discovered that changing my method of instruction, taking a more enhanced approach to experiential learning, yielded a considerable improvement in comparison to the previous year. In the fall of 2010, there was a retention rate of 66 percent, with 56 percent of students earning a grade of C or better, of which 36 percent received an A. In comparison, in fall 2011, the retention rate was 94 percent, with 86 percent of students earning a grade of C or better, and 52 percent receiving an A. My

study is not an isolated case; there are countless examples of great projects that progressive educators have implemented throughout the world in the Journal of Sustainability Education.

  1. What are the leading trends for environmental programs and academic innovations?

    I do not know if there are leading trends because the sustainability movement is still a very pluralistic movement, which I kind of like. For those who are interested in this question, Thriving Beyond Sustainability: Pathways to a Resilient Society, by Andres Edwards, is a good resource. Edwards provides a context to the sustainability movement and notes great applications of sustainability in local communities. I do have to say, it seems that some institutions tend to focus more on research that supports the growth paradigm by primarily funding technologies associated with economic development in the energy sector instead of committing environment preservation, and social justice issues.

  2. How can colleges and universities support environmental projects on a national scale and collaborate to better serve global efforts?

    Sustainability in Higher Education (SHE), promoted by the United Nations, goes back to the 1970s. In 1992, Agenda 21 was created to promote awareness in higher education to focus on developing training in sustainability. In more recent years, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (ASSHE) has taken the lead on creating partnerships and providing resources for sustainability education. ASSHE has created such resources as a case study database, a list of campus organizations, and the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) to measure sustainability performance through a self-reporting framework.

  3. Who was significantly influential in your career path with green technology and environmental innovations?

    Dr. Mark Reader, a political scientist at Arizona State University, was the one who first got me to further explore environmental issues at the academic level. Before being mentored by Dr. Reader, environmentalism seemed to me to be more of a personal choice and not a moral imperative that needed to be shared. However, my real passion began when I started to work on coursework in the Ph.D. program at Prescott College. I was given the opportunity to learn from leaders in environmentalism and globalization, such as Dr. Max Oelschlaeger (Northern Arizona University), Dr. Manuel Chavez (Michigan State University), and Dr. Paul Sneed (Prescott College). This is when I was able to start putting theory into practice by creating projects that promoted sustainability education.

  4. What inspired your work and commitment to environmental efforts and ecology?

    There has not been one set-alone thing, or moment that inspired me. I was fortunate to grow up in an area of Maryland that allowed me to play and explore in nature. Some of

my favorite childhood memories are of camping and fishing on the Potomac River. As an adult, I have had the opportunity to explore very diverse ecosystems, like the jungles of Belize and Arizona desert. All of the places I have visited are facing future challenges that could completely destroy whole ecosystems. I enjoy spending time in nature with my family and I hope future generations will have the same opportunities.

9. Of your recent research and professional experiences, which has had most significance?

Hands down, being the innovator of the Chandler Gilbert Community College Environmental Technology Center has been my most significant professional experience. I helped transform a desolate two-acre plot of land into a hub of experiential learning, where students work on projects such as adobe brick building, composting, planting gardens, and experiments associated with a variety of courses. That being said, I am now very excited to be in my new role as the first Experiential Learning Program Manager in the Office of Academic Innovation at the University of Baltimore. I think I am in a position which will allow me the autonomy to explore community engagement and sustainability projects and to influence a wider community.

10. What book(s) are you currently reading, or have you recently finished?

I just finished reading Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements, by Bill Moyer, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I just picked up The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert.

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Student Loans




People with outstanding student debt who’ve graduated from a four-year college have about 60 percent less net worth [than those without debt]. They have about 40 percent less equity in their homes, and they have about 52 percent less in retirement savings. They’re better off than if they didn’t go to college, but they’re not doing nearly as well as they could be, and as their peers are doing, if they have no debt.”

I was recently made aware of the difference between a tweet and a blog post.  I discovered through a peer-review process that my blog entries were more in line with what a tweet should be…Up until this moment of revelation, I naively thought a blog was something a dog does on the Disney channel (inside joke for those who have small children).  By means of my long-winded introduction, I have now achieved the amount of characters necessary for a blog.

On my daily commute into work, I spend my time stuck in traffic catching up on events by listening to NPR.  I found the following story particularly important not because it informed me of something new about student debt, which my wife and I are very familiar.  Instead, I was hit by the realization that educators are faced with the moral imperative to insure students actually graduate from college.  I realize this bold statement can be perceived as a controversial claim.  I do not imply that this moral responsibility is to be fully placed into the hands of faculty members or that universities ought to become paper mills.

The American economy is quite different than it was 50 years ago.  Statistically, for an individual to economically prosper a college degree has become a necessity, while at the same time the cost of higher education has escalated.  Student loan debt is over $ 1 trillion, while graduation rates have only increased a few percentage points.  I realize that critics might suggest that college is still a choice, which I would contend is a questionable claim.  But, even if it is a choice, educators have also chosen to be engaged in the activity of higher education, which ought focus on student success, thus involving some degree of moral responsibility.



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The Best Way to Learn Something is to Teach It, Even On Line


As any first-year professor can attest, you don’t really know a subject until you have to teach it. The act of sifting through the information, organizing it in a way that will make sense to others and rehearsing your delivery imprints the brain in a way that mere memorization does not.

Teachers know this phenomenon intuitively, and they regularly create assignments that ask students to teach other students. The jigsaw method has become common in both secondary and college education. In college seminars, participants take responsibility for individual sessions and teach the content to their peers. In my Women’s History class I ask students to pick a topic we haven’t covered in class, create a teaching unit about it appropriate for middle school students and then deliver the lesson to a small group of their classmates.

Now there is scientific proof that backs up this pedagogical hunch. Matthew Leiberman reports in his article “Heads Together” (April 14, 2014 Chronicle Review) that he has imaged the brains of students learning for a “social motivation” (i.e. to teach others) vs. a “selfish motivation” (i.e. to take a test). His fMRI study found that “it was activity in the regions involved in social thinking (i.e., the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction) that was associated with accurate recall of the information.” In other words, the students who were asked to pass the information on to an audience other than the professor processed the material more accurately and were able to score higher on a test than those who simply studied for the test.

Lieberman discusses the implications his findings have for MOOCs, which have for the most part asked students to absorb information and give it back on a test. Lieberman has found that even in MOOCs, instructors can ask students to teach the material, using “‘teachable agent’ programs in which the student is asked to teach a computer avatar a science lesson. At each step along the way, the student must think about what the avatar has and hasn’t understood. Though still in their infancy, teachable-agent programs have produced both short and longer-term improvements in learning, especially for those performing poorly before the experience.”

Outside MOOCs, Leiberman’s findings should challenge teachers to continue to develop assignments that ask students to synthesize content for authentic audiences. In history classes, students can design copy for museum exhibits. In physics classes they can produce short videos that illustrate concepts. Psychology students could write columns for the school newspaper describing common psychological conditions. And although the logistics make it a hassle, especially on a commuter campus, students should join study groups and take responsibility for summarizing chunks of materials for their peers. They won’t simply divide the work; they will gain a deeper understanding of the subject.

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Hidden Opportunities: “Undermatched” Students


In recent years there has been a great deal of conversation surrounding the phenomenon known as “Undermatching”, which describes the enrollment of high achieving students in less-selective colleges and universities – even when their qualifications suggest that they could have easily enrolled in more selective, Tier I institutions. This past weekend a research paper was presented at the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) 2014 annual meeting titled “Selectivity and The College Experience: How Undermatching Shapes the College Experience Among High-Achieving Students”,  which was based on data analysis of the 2010 self-reported student responses to the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement (BCSSE). An abstract of the research paper that highlights its findings was recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which includes unmatched students’ reporting less academically challenging environments, lower student satisfaction rates and fewer self-perceived gains during the first year of college.

While these results have become talking points to several professors advocating against undermatching for the nation’s elite public and private post-secondary institutions, they fail to address important points that influence student choice.  Indeed, the mention of the benefits that can be attained by students through undermatching is buried under the other areas that have been sensationalized, but if you look it is in there! The positive data that says that within the first year, students that enrolled in a less selective institution also reported more frequent interactions with faculty and engaged in more active and collaborative learning activities has been virtually ignored.

As a positive stand-alone characteristic of less-selective institutions, the faculty interaction presents a silver lining that is extremely difficult to duplicate at a Tier I or Research I institution, given the high demand for faculty research, grant writing and publishing. The positive benefits of undermatching may not be immediately recognizable in the first year core curriculum at many institutions that are considered to be “less selective”, but University of Baltimore has made significant strides towards institutionalizing them as part of the First Year Experience. For the low income, high achieving student – UB offers several innovative approaches to constructing a challenging academic environment, creating a sense of community and increasing student satisfaction. These approaches include (but are not limited to):

  • Helen P. Denit Honors Program provides spaces for high achieving students to network with each other, opportunities to interact with faculty on a more intimate level, and support for academic endeavors outside the classroom (including study abroad and independent study). New, Transfer, and Currently enrolled students are welcome to apply.
  • Freshman Learning Communities consist of a set of two or three thematically linked courses in which new students will learn and develop skills alongside their classmates during the freshman year.
  • Enhanced Courses are unique course offerings that demonstrate a commitment to certain high-impact practices. These courses are designed to offer opportunities for both students and professors to push themselves to engage in challenging learning experiences, and consist of a mixture of honors and non-honors students.

While these UB initiatives and programs certainly do not address all of the issues associated with undermatched students, they certainly make it clear that this institution (considered by some to be less selective) is deeply invested in student success and satisfaction of its students regardless of background or preparation. If institutions similar to UB take on the challenge of serving this unique student population and begin to initiate campus structures similar to what has been mentioned above, there will be a growth in new educational opportunities for highly talented students that are otherwise bound by the restraints of cost, location and availability when it comes to college choice, satisfaction and degree attainment.

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Struggling Niagara Falls, NY Provides Residence Offers after Graduation

Frozen Falls from the Canadian side Saturday April 4, 2014

Frozen Falls from the Canadian side Saturday April 4, 2014


Lots of college graduates leave school without a clear idea of their next step.  They may not have secured an entry-level position in their chosen field. They may not be ready to jump into grad school. They have energy, knowledge and ambition, but they may not have a workable road map.
Instead of waiting for a job offer to determine their next move, what if college graduates started their post-university lives based on a residence offer? The Northeast Regional Honors Council held its annual meeting in Niagara Falls, NY in April 2014.  The keynote speaker for the conference banquet was Seth Picirillo, the Director of Community Development for the city.  Picirillo, a Niagara Falls native, told his audience that although the municipality boarders one of the natural wonders of the world, Niagara Falls has struggled over the past fifty years as industry left and the population dwindled.  In the 2010 census its population numbered 50,193 people, which put it in a precarious position. The federal government reclassifies any municipal area that falls below 50,000 people as a town and not a city, and towns can not receive some types of federal funding, such as HUD grants.
Picirillo was tasked with making sure that the population of his city did not fall below 50,000.  His office instituted LiveNF (www.live-NF.com) a number of programs designed to attract “urban pioneers” who they define as people who are “willing to reside in, and dedicate their time, skills and energy to maximizing the potential of an urban setting.” In his talk to college honors students Picirillo highlighted the city’s efforts to attract recent college graduates. Most cities aim targeted media campaigns towards this group, but Niagara Falls puts its money where its mouth is.  Last year Picirillo’s office selected twenty recent college graduates who agreed to live in downtown Niagara Falls for two years.  They gave three landlords $40,000 each to rehab apartments in historic buildings where these twenty-somethings could live.  At the end of two years, each urban pioneer will receive $7,000 towards their student loans. So for a cost of $260,000 Niagara Falls may have kept their city from officially changing to a town.
This program helps the city and it also helps the students. Seniors in college often face conflicting emotions; they are eager to start their working lives but they hate to leave the friends they have made at school.  Not only do they like those people as individuals but also they are nervous about giving up the sense of community and the creative fervor that can come with frequent contact with other active and innovative minds.  A program like LiveNF can allow them to continue that collegial contact for a few more years. Additionally, Niagara Falls projects that employers will want to relocate to urban areas with concentrations of creative, well-educated people, creating jobs that might make the pioneers stay after their two years are over.
We tell our students that it is the knowledge they have attained in school that makes them marketable, but programs like LiveNF demonstrate that, in fact, their ways of thinking put them in demand. Cities need innovative ideas and they want residents who have the confidence to take risks and who value a sense of place. Our students need to know that they have value to communities. They may not find their dream jobs right out of college, but if they help to create a vibrant community, the dream jobs might just come to them.
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Evaluating Online Courses


We know that online courses are different from the traditional classroom, so shouldn’t evaluating them be different too? Beyond student course evaluations, how would a peer provide feedback or a program director?

UB has a long history with Quality Matters and their nationally recognized peer-based model for continuous improvement and the QM Rubric for applying quality standards to course design. We’ve had several courses go through the QM process (successfully, I might add) and recognize its value. On a smaller scale, however, there are options for providing local feedback and conducting evaluations online.

Peer Evaluation - Learner interaction, learner assessment, a review of objectives, course material and competencies, as well as an evaluation of course organization are all included in West Carolina University’s checklist for constructive peer feedback. http://www.wcu.edu/WebFiles/PDFs/facultycenter_OCAT_v2.0_25apr07.pdf 

Administrative Evaluation – There are administrators who’ve never taught online and might not know where to start an evaluation of an online course. While I would stress how important it is for to partner with someone with online teaching experience I would also point out Thomas Tobin’s article on Administrative Evaluation of Online Faculty. Although written in 2004, Tobin’s writings are still relevant. He provides factors unique to online courses, technological considerations, helping administrators unfamiliar with online courses, and national standards, rubrics, and benchmarks.

Other Rubrics – More? Glad to. Here are a few additional sites for quality assurance and evaluation.

UB’s e-Learning Center staff are happy to discuss the Quality Matters Rubric or how other checklists and rubrics can be used to evaluate online courses. There are those among us teaching online who are skeptical of evaluation but clearly, there will be less opposition if it is based in constructive feedback and sound online teaching practices.

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How Losing Can Help Us Win


fail fast

A few months back I came across a book called “Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win” It immediately resonated with me because I recognized myself in many of the examples. As someone who’s always aimed for perfection, I often find myself focusing too heavily on minor mishaps and my own perception of failure instead of focusing on the lessons learned from these experiences.

But the authors of Fail Fast gave me a new perspective. “It’s only by sitting down and stringing together some words – despite not knowing what you want to write or where your narrative will go,” they write, “that puts you into the place where the story can begin to unfold.” In other words, “you can’t know what something is like, how you will feel about it, or what will result from it until you actually are doing it.” Considering that I’m someone who dreads writing blog posts (like this one), this insight really struck a chord. After all, I have lots of ideas but I often waste so much time laboring how to best articulate them that, in the end, nothing gets written. OK. Time to change tactics. Here goes stringing together some words. Let’s see where it takes us.

Out of all the stories in the book, perhaps the one that resonated with me the most was that of a ceramics professor who took a somewhat risky (especially if they aspired for tenure!) approach to teaching one term. Instead of evaluating all the students using the same criteria, this professor divided students into two groups. The students sitting on the left side of the studio on the first day were to be graded solely on the quantity of their work as measured in pounds of pots produced. The other half of the class would be graded on the quality of their work. At the end of the semester when it was time to assign grades, the professor made an interesting discovery, one (he/she) would have never made if grades were assessed using the status quo: the work produced by the students graded on quantity far surpassed the work of those who focused on quality.

Since I work for the Office of Academic Innovation here at UB, I can’t help but ponder the processes we turn to in order to inspire transformative educational experiences that demonstrate and promote student achievement. Just like the ceramics students we know we want to accomplish great things but we don’t have the benefit of someone assigning us a path to get there. Perhaps the lesson of Fail Fast is that knowing the “right way” doesn’t matter. What’s more important is that we try (and try again…and again) to forge a path to success by accepting the fact that we’re sometimes going to fail but also celebrating the learning that can come from those failures. The path to success is rarely clear, but as long as we can keep up a steady pace of trying and learning, we’re much more likely to get there.

That’s the theory. The reality is that higher education is typically not considered to be a fast-paced industry where it’s possible to try out multiple paths to success over a short period of time. When a new initiative is introduced, it often takes at least an entire academic year of preparation before we even begin the execution of the initiative. This approach isn’t necessarily bad – this is an academic environment and academics are trained to thoroughly evaluate all the possibilities—but it does make it difficult to experiment with a lot of different approaches in the ways encouraged by Fail Fast.

So what do we do with this culture clash? How can a culture of innovation based on frequent, swift deployment of new approaches thrive in an academic culture based on careful, continuous deliberation? Financial realities are an issue too, especially when “failure” might mean a shortfall in revenue that we can’t afford. Is it even possible in academia to “fail fast” and “fail often?”

If higher education is going to meet the challenges we’re facing today and those we’ll face in the future, there has to be a happy medium. Throwing out the old ways in a rush to embrace the new means leaving behind the kind of thoughtfulness, inclusiveness, and deliberation that has served us well for a long time. On the other hand, rejecting the new in order to cling to legacy won’t allow us to move towards where we need to be. Perhaps what we should be striving for is a culture of “deliberative innovation” that combines the best of both approaches, rewarding swift action, risk taking, and the inevitable botches along the way while continuing to use our collective experiences and insights in a collegial way as we move towards our goals. It doesn’t have to be a question of quality or quantity: sometimes “innovation” is really about continuous improvement.

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A Student Perspective: Get Involved NOW!


We have been missing the student perspective on this blog. Therefore, I asked a recent Helen P. Denit Honors Program graduate, Ron Williams, to write about the importance of being an engaged student during their undergraduate experience.

Ron Williams

This is what Mr. Williams had to say:

When I talk to students about getting involved on campus, some tell me that all they want to do is get through their class, get their degree and move on. Of course, that is predicated on the notion that they will actually move on, and in a substantially successful way, through a high paying career, upwardly mobile status, etc.

Well, that may have worked 20 years ago, but in today’s global economy, that simply will not suffice. Employers are looking for workers with a global vision, a firm grasp on both international and domestic markets, and adeptness at critical thinking and analysis – a problem solving person who operates well under varying business conditions.

Graduates today are competing against those who have both master’s degrees and quality work experience, so they must have resumes that make them unique. More importantly, as Prof. Frank R. van Vliet, Executive in Residence, Department of Marketing and Entrepreneurship told me, “Your resume must look like a problem solving document.” In other words, you must show the company for which you are applying that you have studied their company and can troubleshoot challenges they are facing.

One of the best ways to develop that problem-solving muscle while in school – aside from internships – is through campus organization involvement that focuses on leadership and service.  Through these organizations you will develop team building, strengths mastery, solid moral and ethical principles, and problem solving – critical skills that will transform you as a student, a citizen, and a human being. This is exactly why the Helen P. Denit Honors Program offers so many diverse events every semester – to help prepare you for what’s ahead.

Our society is more than ever in dire need of visionaries with the guts and determination to lead us through our current challenges and map out a future that will benefit us all. For many the training ground is right here inside the university environment. Why would you shirk your responsibility, and the incredible opportunity to become one of those people starting now?

So yes, you can spend your time here just getting by, doing enough to pass your classes and graduate, but then what? Are you prepared to spend the bulk of your time desperately hoping for your cell phone to ring, frustrated because you did not get the interview for that choice position you hoped for, repeatedly passed over for promotions in your current job, and spending hours at happy hour complaining to your friends while they are living the life they want to live? If you don’t think that will never happen to you, think again.

That doesn’t have to be your future life. You can seize the moment right now and get involved. Yes, it may seem a bit taxing now, attending class and studying while meeting with student organizations and participating in co-curricular activities fulfilling, but just remember this – sweat now, or pay later!

Life is not what you get through. Life is what you experience. If you are you are not preparing yourself accordingly and simply rushing to get to a destination, you may be shocked to discover that it is no longer there for you, because the bar has been raised, something of which you would have known and been able to meet if you took your time and mastered what you needed.

Get involved. I guarantee you that it will be the best decision you have made!

Ron Williams is currently pursuing and M.F.A in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts here at UB.


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NSEE Conference in Baltimore


The National Society for Experiential Education  will be holding the 43rd annual conference in Baltimore, MD.  It will be held at the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court Baltimore Hotel from September 29-October 1, 2014.


Posted in Community-based learning, Experiential, Global | Leave a comment

Amtrack Residencies


For individuals that like trains and writing, Amtrack is now offering residencies.   Please listen to the story on NPR:



Or just apply


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