MURRAY, Ky. — Three Murray State University faculty members were recently selected to receive grant awards as part of the Faculty Innovation Initiative, which provides seed funds to support innovative student-community engagement projects.

The recipients of the grant include Dr. Jessica Branch of the College of Education and Human Services; Jake Hildebrant of the Jesse D. Jones College of Science, Engineering and Technology; and Dr. Alyx Shultz of the Hutson School of Agriculture. They will each implement their awarded funds through classroom projects during the 2018–19 academic year.

This initiative serves as a core pillar of the Giving Back Endowment, which was established by Dr. Bob Long and his wife, Patricia, to advance the understanding, appreciation and application of the principles of altruism, generosity and service to others among Murray State students and faculty as well as across the Murray-Calloway County community.

Long, who previously served as a distinguished visiting professor with the College of Education and Human Services, said, “It is a very exciting opportunity to promote student philanthropy across the Murray State campus.”

Faculty grant recipients were each awarded $1,000 to fulfill project goals through their respective courses, including Branch’s ELE 390: Introduction to Kindergarten course, Hildebrant’s EMT 320: Mechatronics course and Shultz’s AGR 700: Research in Agriculture course.

Each year, students in Branch’s Introduction to Kindergarten course are placed into area kindergarten classrooms for field experience and are required to develop a standards-based unit and teach four lessons. Branch’s project, which centers around developing a pretend play kit, will provide kindergarten partners with open-ended materials and dramatic play props that children can use in conjunction with the standards-based units established by the Murray State students. These play kits will then be donated to the kindergarten classrooms for them to use throughout the year.

“In past semesters, the Murray State students have completed a virtual pretend play kit project,” Branch said. “The Giving Back Endowment will make it possible for our students to create real kits and implement them with kindergarten children. Without play, children do not have the same opportunities to develop the creative thinking skills that the 21st century workforce demands.”

Furthermore, with the help of this grant, electromechanical engineering technology students in Hildebrant’s Mechatronics course will recycle and refurbish used bikes, which will then be donated to regional nonprofit organizations, such as the Bridge Ministry in Nashville, Tennessee.

“According to their website, the Bridge Ministry feeds 350–500 needy people every Tuesday,” Hildebrant said. “Because a mode of transportation, like bicycles, makes a huge difference in the lives of homeless individuals, the organization gives bikes away through a lottery drawing when they are available.”

For the Murray State students involved, these bicycles will be used to teach simple mechanical processes while also teaching ethics through serving.

“Many times in engineering coursework, service learning is ignored because the engineering mind tends to focus on outcomes and overlooks the advantages of community involvement,” Hildebrant said. “This project will create methods for engineering technology students to pursue community engagement by contacting local nonprofits to communicate with them about the refurbished bikes.”

Lastly, students in Shultz’s Research in Agriculture graduate-level course will work to provide eight area high schools with multi-week teaching curriculums and AeroGardens, which are countertop hydroponic plant-growing systems.

“The systems will be distributed to local agriculture programs,” Shultz said, “and the curriculum will center around state standards in the horticulture pathway from the Kentucky Occupational Skill Standards Assessment set, as well as concepts in middle and high school biological/life sciences.”

These state-of-the-art systems will allow agriculture teachers to highlight and analyze all aspects of the plant life cycle — from seed to maturity. Many components can be difficult to highlight with only textbook or digital examples, so students will now be able to see plant responses occurring firsthand in the AeroGarden systems. Furthermore, they will gain valuable life skills by caring for and harvesting plants from the system.

All Murray State teaching faculty, regardless of rank or tenure, are eligible to apply for this annual grant. A committee led by Dr. Peter Weber, director of the University’s nonprofit leadership studies program, closely evaluated this year’s applications based on specified criteria, including the project’s level of innovation in engagement and philanthropy, level of importance to the academic discipline and quality of potential impact on student learning.

“While this was only the second year for the grant initiative, we received a number of impressive proposals,” Weber said. “Ultimately, we chose these three recipients because we were highly impressed with their innovative approaches to integrating community engagement within their respective course structures.”

Dr. David Whaley, dean of the College of Education and Human Services, echoed Weber’s sentiments.

“The Giving Back Endowment creates a unique opportunity for our University’s inventive faculty to pursue innovation at its highest levels,” Whaley said. “These three individuals, through their visionary proposals, will create extraordinary opportunities in service to our students and to the community.”

To learn more about this initiative, visit Community members interested in learning more about the Giving Back Endowment and how to make a gift may contact Melanie Brooks with the Murray State Office of Development at or 270-809-3026.

The recipients of the Faculty Innovation Initiative grant stand together.
Three Murray State University faculty members were recently selected to receive grant awards as part of the Faculty Innovation Initiative. Pictured (from left to right): Dr. David Whaley, dean for the College of Education and Human Services; Melanie Brooks, development director for the College of Education and Human Services; Dr. Jessica Branch, assistant professor of interdisciplinary early childhood education; Dr. Alyx Shultz, associate professor of agricultural science; Jake Hildebrant, assistant professor of electromechanical engineering technology; and Dr. Peter Weber, director for nonprofit leadership studies.
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