New Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning an innovation space for faculty

The Stearns Center supports excellence in teaching and educational innovation, said Provost S. David Wu. Photo by Damian Cristodero.

There is no mistaking your location when you step off the elevator on the fourth floor of Innovation Hall on George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus—the Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning.

It says so right there on the 26-foot long by 8-foot tall mural on the wall.

The new center brings together the expertise of teams formerly in the Office of Digital Learning and the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence as a one-stop destination for all George Mason faculty and graduate students looking to hone their skills as educators and keep up with the latest teaching disciplines and discoveries. It opens Tuesday, Aug. 29.

From strengthening face-to-face teaching methods to understanding how to better utilize digital learning tools, from curriculum design to constructing online and hybrid courses—support for these efforts, which was previously spread over several locations around campus, now has a single address.

With the creation of the Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning, Mason joins a growing list of universities with similar hubs to promote teaching excellence and innovation.

“The center represents our strong commitment toward excellence in teaching and educational innovation,” Provost S. David Wu said. “By providing faculty with integrated instructional design, digital learning, and teaching and support, we will stimulate new ideas in curriculum design as well as collaborations across disciplinary boundaries.”

It also is fitting, Wu said, that the center is named for University Professor Peter Stearns, who was Mason’s provost from 2000 to 2014 and drove the creation of the university’s faculty support unit, the Center for Teaching Excellence.

“Dr. Stearns has been a tireless advocate for excellence in teaching,” Wu said.

Peter Stearns

Peter Stearns. Creative Services photo.

“I am deeply honored by the decision to name the expanded teaching center in my honor,” Stearns said. “The center’s practical impact and its symbolic role capture the importance of good teaching among the Mason faculty as a whole, a core commitment that has always impressed me and will take on additional dimensions in the years to come.”

“This will be a place where faculty really see themselves as having the support and the sense of community they need as we meet our goals around innovative and digital learning,” said Kim Eby, Mason’s associate provost for faculty affairs and development.

The center supports faculty development in both online and classroom teaching. This will ultimately benefit Mason’s students, a goal that was one of Stearns’ constant priorities.

“Peter Stearns has been committed to the evolution and enhancement of the learning process,” said Michelle Marks, Mason’s vice president for academic innovation and new ventures. “The center will be a place to experiment with new teaching methods that will create more effective learning environments and, ultimately, enrich the student experience.”

For Steve Nodine, the Stearns Center’s director for digital learning, and Shelley Reid, director for teaching excellence, the collaboration will lead to even greater innovation.

Conversations between faculty members and instructional designers and mentors can now be easily expanded with other voices, which are just down the hall.

Beginning in September, the center will host weekly open labs for online course design on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2-4:30 p.m., with instructional designers and mentors available to brainstorm and answer questions.

Collaboration spaces have wall-mounted screens to allow faculty to work with technologies that mirror what is in the classroom, and to research and experiment with new teaching techniques.

“We hope the faculty will not just come here at our invitation,” Nodine said. “We’re hoping the faculty will come here because this is the place where proximity is going to increase those spontaneous kinds of conversations and collaborations. It’s going to feel natural rather than scheduled.”

“And on the flip side, I think we serve students better,” Reid said. “Students don’t have the sense that online learning is a significantly different place than face-to-face encounters. They move in and out of those spaces. So the more consistent we can make the experience, as a student moves from an online course to a face-to-face course or an active learning course to a hybrid course, that helps the student learn.”