Ann Arbor resident Areel Al-Lami, who was born in Ann Arbor but raised in Saudi Arabia, has seen immigrant communities in Ann Arbor struggle with language barriers, false cultural assumptions and a lack of technological literacy, which she believes could be alleviated through diversity initiatives. 

She attended the Traveling Innovation Hour’s fourth meeting of the year to discuss her ideas with a group of people who could offer diverse opinions and solutions.

The Traveling Innovation Hour met Friday morning to discuss initiatives in education with an intimate group of University of Michigan faculty, professors and students. The new initiative is co-hosted by the Office of Academic Innovation and seeks to start a conversation on the issues students and faculty face in the classroom.

Traveling Innovation Hour is open to the public and serves as preparation for the Academic Innovation Initiative Summit on November 14. Friday’s meeting focused on student-client challenges in the Ford School of Public Policy and the Law School. 

Al-Lami workshopped her ideas with a staff member at the Office of Academic Innovation, and brainstormed solutions for problems faced by Ann Arbor immigrants such as creating video testimonials to display during teacher orientation programs and linking translation tools to client-management platforms.

“Ann Arbor is not the same as 30 years ago. We need to show immigrants that you are part of this society. We need to show that culture is important,” Al-Lami said. “We need to have classes to let everyone know about other race, other culture.”

The Office of Academic Innovation has been helping the University students and faculty solve problems like Al-Lami’s for the past three years. Formerly called the Office of Digital Education and Innovation, the office has evolved to solve academic problems with technological solutions and with new approaches or processes to learning.

Elisabeth Gerber, an associate dean for research and policy engagement and one of the hosts of the Traveling Innovation Hour, turned to the office when she sought to find a way to engage her students with public policy using simulations.

“The challenge is that people disagree. That’s why we have public policy, that’s why we have politics,” Gerber said. “That situation lends extremely well to simulations. Students can get a hand on what it means to come to an agreement with someone even though you might disagree.”

Gerber has been developing a tool with the Office of Academic Innovation called Policymaker, which allows instructors to “experience strategy development, collaboration, advocacy, and communication,” according to the tool’s website.

Michael Bloom, a clinical assistant professor of law and the other host of Traveling Innovation Hour, also used the office to develop a tool called Praktio. According to its website, Praktio utilizes games and repetitions to “provide instant feedback and explanation” when learning about contracts.

“Learning to work with contracts is a lot like learning a new language,” Bloom said. “With Scotch Tape and cardboard, I set about to try and build something I could use in my classroom, which led to a startup I have called Praktio.”

One group led by Bloom discussed how the decentralized nature of the University makes it difficult to share information. It developed solutions for this issue, such as creating repositories for information and alumni video testimonials that future cohorts could rely on.

Another issue Bloom addressed is how students do not know what to expect in class, which can hinder their performance. He has started making current students interview former students about expectations and the particularities of the class.

“I try to make it impossible for students entering my clinic to not know exactly what they’re getting into,” Bloom said.

The intimate atmosphere and small-group work of the Traveling Innovation Hour allow participants to workshop ideas with people in different areas of study and from diverse backgrounds, exposing them to ideas they would not have considered otherwise.

Shan Jia, a Beijing Normal University student studying at the School of Information for a two-week exchange program, lent an international perspective to the conversation. Gerber, who attended the workshop with Jia and another Chinese-exchange student, reflected that for each academic problem she discussed with the group, the international students could come up with four to five examples of technology from China that addresses those issues.

“How can we make better use of global marketplace of technology, instead of creating new ones here?” Gerber posited to the group.

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