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The Marsal Family School of Education Takes a New Leap into Undergraduate Education

A new major called Learning, Equity, And Problem Solving for the Public Good (LEAPS) will create learning leaders equipped to tackle the largest—and most pressing—issues we face


What would it look like to reimagine the undergraduate experience from the ground up?

Professors Barry Fishman, Leslie Rupert Herrenkohl, and Associate Dean Kendra Hearn have engaged faculty, staff, and students from across the university in the development of a new undergraduate major. The result is a degree program that provides students with direct research experience and public service, focuses on developing broad and useful skills that can be applied in many different fields, strengthens connections between U-M and Detroit, and builds a living/learning community where students learn both in the classroom and from the world beyond.

This new program—LEAPS—will be offered by the Marsal Family School of Education beginning in the fall of 2024. Learning, Equity, and Problem Solving for the Public Good (LEAPS) is an interprofessional, four-year program leading to a bachelor’s degree in education that prepares graduates to be learning leaders in a world that presents challenges that defy simple solutions. Professors Fishman and Herrenkohl serve as the founding faculty co-directors of the new program. 

“LEAPS is fundamentally about learning,” says Fishman. “And what better place to study and talk about learning than a school of education?” 

The LEAPS major represents the first time in the school’s history that first-year students will be admitted directly into the Marsal School. Starting with a cohort of 20 and eventually growing to cohorts of 120 students each year, LEAPS learners will spend their freshman year living in dorms and taking classes on the Marygrove Conservancy campus in Detroit. This campus is home to the thriving Detroit P-20 Partnership and its Marygrove Learning Community, a partnership between the conservancy, Detroit Public School Community District, Starfish Family Services, the Kresge Foundation, and the Marsal School. Jay Meeks (AB ’08), an LSA alumnus and a native Detroiter who lives in the Fitzgerald/Marygrove neighborhood, became the first LEAPS Program Manager in September 2022.  

Undergraduate students will take part in experiential and place-based instruction led by U-M faculty as well as Detroit community members and institutions. The learning experience will prepare students to be leaders, facilitators, and change agents who know how to make progress in the face of uncertainty, working to address persistent social and systemic inequities and knowledge gaps that thwart transformative change at all levels of society. 

“For me,” says Meeks, “the excitement about LEAPS is having young people who are passionate about community, cities, and civic engagement working alongside me, my neighbors, and other organizations in the city as we do good and necessary work.”

Learning Leaders
Leaders across a range of industries have cited the need for creative problem solvers. In a world that is grappling with complex societal problems, fields like law, health care, business, education, and policy increasingly seek to recruit individuals who are able to look at problems from multiple angles. Addressing real-world challenges requires thinking across disciplinary boundaries and engaging people, communities, and organizations in a process of learning and collaboration. LEAPS aims to prepare students to do just that.

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“A lot of programs focus on knowledge and skills, which are important,” says Herrenkohl, “but we believe that LEAPS will become known for focusing on wisdom, or how and when to put knowledge and skills to good use in contexts that matter. I think more than ever, at this moment in history, we need people who are able to be human in places where technical skills are absolutely necessary, but not enough.”

Fishman hopes that LEAPS will serve as a lighthouse to inspire other innovative approaches to undergraduate education. 

“We look forward to joining forces with colleagues around U-M to help bring transformative change to higher education. We also plan to make the LEAPS program a focus for our own scholarship on teaching and learning in college so we can share what we learn with others who wish to improve undergraduate education.”

What are the features that make LEAPS unique? 

Program & Curriculum Design
The design of LEAPS builds upon decades of evidence from learning sciences scholarship about how people learn. The program was designed from the ground up with participation from U-M undergraduate students including Nando Felten, Darrell Tubbs, and Kingsley Enechukwu, who hail from the greater Detroit area. Felten and Tubbs also participated in several of the semester-long design seminars that included U-M undergraduate and graduate students working together to contribute to key aspects of the LEAPS program including curriculum, assessment, student life, and admissions. “I am excited that LEAPS can help push and shape the landscape of education, to help young students become problem solvers and culturally aware advocates—not just for their own community, but in any field or human endeavor they commit to,” says Felten.  

LEAPS will engage students in apprenticeship-based learning through community-based research projects and collaborations from the moment they enter the university, through the completion of a culminating capstone project. Throughout all four years of the program, students will engage in research- and practice-based apprenticeships. Most students will move to the UM-Ann Arbor campus in their second year, while continuing to have experiences in—and build relationships with—the Detroit community throughout their course of study. “An important dimension of the program is community engagement,” says Tubbs. “By involving community members in the program, students will have opportunities to broaden their knowledge of the Detroit community and support the implementation of community-led responses to problems that the system ignores.”

The curriculum consists of courses focusing on how people learn and how to address different kinds of societal questions with a range of research methods. “The focus is on how we answer questions,” says Fishman, “At its core this is what a research university is built to do. But it's also something that we very rarely teach undergraduates directly. In LEAPS, students engage with problem solving right away. We want students to be able to help organizations answer their questions and make progress on the problems and challenges that they face. That will be a core part of being prepared to participate in the research mission of the university.”

Meeks, who serves on the board of directors of the Marygrove Community Association and helped the organization incorporate as a 501(c)(3), is designing a course to help students understand the history of cities and how they contribute to identity.

“It will provide an introduction to the role of race in the history of U.S. education and policies with respect to community and civic development. Students will also consider how race and social justice shape contemporary issues related to human learning across contexts,” Meeks says. He anticipates having students attend civic gatherings such as city council and community organization meetings to deepen their understanding of civic life in Detroit.

Through their experiences, LEAPS learners will develop skills in a range of key areas, including narrative thinking and interpretation, historical thinking, scientific and computational thinking, and information literacy. LEAPS students will also build skills that contribute to personal good (e.g. self-knowledge and well-being), group good (e.g. communication, leadership, collaboration) and public good (e.g. civic purpose and engagement, intercultural and intergroup engagement, and ethics). 

Herrenkohl, who will teach a core course on learning for first-year students, says she hopes the course will be “an invitation for how students will approach the rest of their work in the program.” She anticipates students “developing self-awareness and self-reflection as they watch, listen, and learn from other people across lines of difference such as race, socioeconomic status, and gender to recognize and value critical ways of learning that maybe they haven’t seen before.”

Research and Reciprocity 
LEAPS is designed to enable students to be active participants in the broader scholarly mission of U-M, and at the same time enhance the institution’s capacity to pursue engaged scholarship that advances knowledge and practice. This is especially important in a world where solutions to problems are often ambiguous, and progress requires knowledge and skills from multiple domains. It is also important at a time when the people and communities traditionally served by a public research university increasingly question the value of the institution for their everyday life and future prosperity. Through partnership research, LEAPS aims to help deepen the relationship between U-M and the communities the university serves.

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LEAPS’s core principles center diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism in ways that are consistent with the mission and vision of U-M’s recent DEI initiatives. The project-based curriculum is designed to engage a range of community members and organizations, including historically marginalized constituencies in Detroit and the surrounding area. LEAPS partnerships will center community members as full participants in knowledge building and in shaping program experiences as key stakeholders through roles such as community educators, scholars, and artists. Community members are and will continue to be invited to learn more about and actively shape the kinds of engaged scholarship pursued by U-M, opening up new pathways for future engagement, including through undergraduate and graduate study with U-M. 

“LEAPS creates an opportunity for students to interact with the public not after they’ve graduated, but while they are learning,” says Meeks. “And they’re able to make connections to what philosopher and educator John Dewey calls learning by doing. They’re in a place, and able to apply their learning and ask questions as well. They’re also able to learn alongside the public. I learn something everyday just driving the roads here [in Detroit]. I think the reciprocity of learning and the relevancy of that is the real power of LEAPS.”

Throughout their time as LEAPS undergraduates, students will participate in Forum, a multigenerational “super homeroom,” as Fishman describes it, that will continue to unify the cohort and provide support among lower- and upper-division students as well as advising support from faculty. 

“Forum will be a space where learners are guided to make connections across the variety of experiences they are having inside and outside the classroom” says Fishman. 

Herrenkohl discovered how essential intergenerational space was in her former role as faculty lead for a university-community partnership at the University of Washington. “It really allowed students to come into their sense of servant leadership. It also amplified students’ sense of agency and responsibility to one another and the communities where they worked and learned.” Similarly, in Forum, the mix of lower- and upperclassmen will surface different strengths and perspectives. 

Learning Pathways
In their junior year, LEAPS majors will choose a specialization or pre-professional interest known as a pathway. Pathways are designed to prepare students for particular career paths and/or postgraduate study. Students may choose a pathway from among preset options, or define their own pathway (which other students may follow in the future) with faculty approval. LEAPS faculty will guide students toward professional learning opportunities and courses designed to prepare them for further study or work in their respective areas of interest.

“We will work with students to build the set of experiences they should have in their junior or senior year,” says Fishman. “What are the electives they should take? What internships or volunteer experiences will prepare them for what they want to do after they graduate?” 

Pathways are intended to provide the kind of meaningful, deep, real-world preparation that employers and graduate schools value. These kinds of tailored experiences will help LEAPS graduates emerge as transformational leaders who know how to learn, teach others to be learners, and can serve in civic and professional roles. 

By LEAPS and Bounds 
With the launch of LEAPS, U-M students will learn to think flexibly and broadly to understand issues from multiple perspectives and through multiple lenses. They will be savvy and sensitive about race, culture, community, ethics, policy, and politics. Above all, they will be lifelong learners and learning leaders, skillful in “learning how to learn” and guiding others along pathways to greater understanding as they work collaboratively and constructively on problems of today and tomorrow. 

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“LEAPS will give undergraduate students a unique understanding of the importance of learning with and from Detroit community members to solve real problems,” says Associate Dean Hearn. “The skills that they will build in so doing will transform them into learning leaders who are able to work effectively across myriad sectors and professions.”

LEAPS is a leap forward for undergraduate education.

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