The JMU campus will soon be home to a number of community outreach projects, thanks to a new mini-grant program created by the JMU Faculty Senate. 

The program, discussed at length during Faculty Senate meetings this past academic year, comes as part of JMU’s vision statement, and aims to further the university’s self-stated goal to be more engaged with its students and the surrounding community. 

“We’d been working on [ways] of collaborating with the administration,” Dave McGraw, senate speaker and integrated science and technology professor, said. “Out of that brainstorming, an idea came about of the administration giving the faculty senate an amount of money it could use to help accomplish the new vision of the university.” 

McGraw went on to describe how the senate eventually decided on a mini-grant program, where money would be distributed to faculty interested in funding personal projects that would coincide with the university’s goal of campus and community engagement. The senate was awarded an initial budget of $10,000 by President Jon Alger, which was later increased to more than $20,000 after the mini-grant program proved to be more popular than anticipated. 

“We announced the mini-grants in February of this year, and there was a deadline in March, and it was amazing the response. We got 77 applications, and they were really of high quality,” McGraw said. “[The administration] is very happy with what we’ve done so far, and they’ve promised us more money next year.” 

The winning projects range from a drama workshop for homeschooled children and a summer autism clinic to more unusual initiatives, such as a mobile biotechnology laboratory. 

“I’ve done biotechnology-related science education outreach with local middle and high schools for years, but have never had the dedicated equipment to support sustained partnerships with teachers and schools,” Stephanie Stockwell, a professor in the integrated science and technology department and the originator of the biotech lab proposal, said. “When I saw the call for proposals, I was really excited because the new mini-grants [project] perfectly aligned with the community engagement work I’d been doing for years. 

The lab will feature equipment and protective gear for students, and is intended for use in service learning courses and other community partnerships. 

Another project, a scale model of the solar system, was put forward by planetarium director and physics and astronomy professor Shanil Virani. When complete, the model will feature planet exhibits across the JMU campus, removed from one another by distances corresponding to the actual distances between our solar system’s eight major planets. Funds for the project will come jointly from the university budget and the JMU physics and astronomy departments. 

“Astronomy is a popular gateway subject to the natural sciences and engineering. Most Americans don’t have a good sense of just how big the distances between the planets are,” Virani said. “The model would start at Festival Hall and end at the John C. Wells Planetarium, and will provide a direct way for students and visitors to learn how big our solar system is, how small the planets are compared to the Sun and the human ingenuity involved in our robotic exploration of [the solar system].”

Virani also stated that he would be interested in working with the JMU School of Design and Art History in designing the individual planet models and displays. 

 The mini-grant program isn’t simply a popular senate project, either. It also comes as a sign of increasingly favorable relations between the faculty senate and the university administration. 

“This is an incredible sign of collaboration,” Mark Piper, an associate philosophy professor, faculty senate marshal and chairman of the nominations and elections committee, said. “It’s a huge credit to the administration, trusting the faculty like this. As I understand it, past presidents haven’t had nearly this kind of working relationship with the senate.”

Piper spoke at length about the mini-grants project, saying that he wished the senate had been able to fund more of the projects. 

“We were pretty overwhelmed at the quantity and quality of the proposals we received,” Piper said, echoing McGraw’s sentiments. 

The mini-grants initiative will continue in spring semester of 2016. The amount has not yet been specified, but is stated to be at least as much as was allocated in 2015, according to McGraw.  

Contact Evan McAllister at 

Photo by Chelsea Glowacki / The Breeze