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Interview with Tim Baird and Kiyah Duffey

Baird Family

As newly appointed Faculty Principal for the Creativity and Innovation District Living-Learning Community (CID LLC) at Virginia Tech, Tim Baird, Associate Professor of Geography, and his family are looking forward to the adventure of a lifetime. He, his wife Kiyah Duffey, Director of Strategic Innovation for the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and their three children, ages 12, 9, and 8, will live among about 600 diverse, creative, and entrepreneurial-minded students. The adventure begins in fall 2021 when construction of the CID complex is complete.

We sat down with Tim and Kiyah for a conversation on the challenges and possibilities of their new endeavor.

  • Why did you want to be a part of the residential learning communities at Virginia Tech? Had you previously been involved with a residential college or been part of another innovative learning initiative? What was it about the residential college concept that interested you? 

Tim: I have the sense that residential learning communities get everyone out of their comfort zone a bit. I imagine it will be pretty weird for college students to step on match-box cars on their way to the bathroom. And it will certainly be weird for our family to have 600 houseguests. But I’m quite sure that beautiful things can grow from that weirdness – with intention. That’s always been my experience.

Kiyah: For me, the residential learning communities harken back to my own college days at a small, liberal arts school. With only 1600 undergraduates (and no grad students) we had a lot of access to our professors, including the opportunity to know them personally and to see their lives outside of campus. This was invaluable to me, and I like that the residential learning communities help to provide this for students at Tech.

  • What in particular attracted you to the planned Creativity and Innovation District?  

Tim: It’s a staggeringly ambitious project. Business and arts students together? Maker spaces and dance studios side-by-side? Galleries and dorm beds stacked on top of each other? All this together? What?! I’m reminded of a kind of definition of creativity offered up by Pixar’s Pete Doctor (Monsters, Inc., Up, Inside Out). It’s “unexpected connections between unrelated concepts and ideas.” The CID LLC will be a petri-dish for this these types of connections.

Kiyah: The joining of these communities -- and in this space -- is very exciting to me. As an entrepreneur whose business relies equally on creativity, innovation, and business acumen, I was immediately intrigued by the possibilities of the CID. I have had the pleasure of engaging students in this role as a business owner and found the process energizing. If I could help to engage their interests and inspire their own aspirations, I wanted to be a part of that.

  • Tim, how does this dovetail with your research in human/environment interactions? 

Tim: Humans move around in space – they bump into each other. They make friends, get married, have kids, form companies, and birth movements. And when people imbue space with meaning, they create place (e.g., think about the difference between “house” and “home”). I’m interested in how campus spaces become places – and how through this process you and me become us.

  • Your formal title is Associate Professor of Geography, but the subject matter you teach and research encompasses so much more – sustainability, values, resiliency, human behavior. Why is it important to take a broad, multidisciplinary view of scholarship? 

Tim: I think that the world is filled with different types of people. Some of us are more interested in going deep on a fairly narrow topic -- by learning all they can about it, tunneling in every direction. We could call them hedgehogs. Others are more interested to wander about and sniff out all sorts of different things and the connections between them. Let’s call them foxes. The world needs hedgehogs AND foxes. Hedgehogs will develop the new vaccines and foxes will figure out how to convince people to get them. For so long, we’ve had these towering, relatively monolithic and exclusive disciplines: economics, chemistry, history, physics, etc. Most of them curated and guarded by hedgehogs. But many of the world’s most pressing challenges lay at the intersection of these disciplines. We need people who lay there too. We need foxes.

  • You have been involved with some new and exciting approaches to teaching and learning. Can you briefly describe SCALE-UP learning environments and the concept of Pink Time? 

Tim: SCALE-UP, which stands for Student-Centered Active Learning Environment was originally developed for Undergraduate Physics courses at NC State. Now, it’s widespread design strategy for classrooms that tosses out rows and columns of face-forward desks and chairs that mostly silence students and subject them to the instructor. The new model is about creating the conditions for students to interact with each other – to work together. This can happen in lots of ways, but the simplest is using round tables. Really SCALE-UP is about power. It’s about professors using their power differently – and about students having the space to practice their own power.

Pink Time is an assignment, a crazy one, that tries to build on the round table idea by taking something simple and putting it someplace it’s not expected to be. Pink Time asks students to “skip class, do whatever you want, and grade yourself.” Yes – you read that correctly. That’s a college assignment. For real! And it works. Students are encouraged to engage a new interest or an old passion and to learn about it, or practice it, in a way that makes sense to them. Then they return to class and share what they did. You wouldn’t believe the course-cohesion and community that can grow from this. Imagine strangers being vulnerable with each other like that. Ultimately, that community becomes a learning tool we can use to weave ourselves and the course material together.

  • There is so much potential in meeting students where they live. Why is it important to integrate intentional learning into the residence halls?

Tim: When we’re at home, we let our guard down. We take our masks off and put on comfortable sweats. We’re vulnerable - and also available. We’re more ourselves. Learning should happen there too. AND we need to call it learning.

Kiyah: I second what Tim said. I also feel that learning should be happening everywhere, all the time. Tim and I tell our kids that the difference between those who can do something and those who can’t as well is practice. We need to practice (and practice practicing!) and that’s what learning is (and how we should engage with it). Practice learning. In the classroom and outside it.

  • How does it change the faculty-student relationship to take it beyond the classroom? Does it change how you approach your classroom teaching? 

Tim: Great question! I’ve thought a lot about the word teacher over the years. “Am I a teacher if my students don’t learn?” It’s like that tree falling in the forest. I think effective teachers often inspire learners to teach themselves. They can do this by modeling learning, or providing strategies for learning. But simply delivering information isn’t enough. I can’t really make the learning stick beyond the final exam. Only students have that power. They have to care! Real learning, learning that endures, occurs when knowledge is fused with experience. And we become better teachers as we become better learners – weaving information and experience as we go. I’ll become a better teacher from living with students – undoubtedly – because I’ll learn! And the students will become better teachers, because they’ll learn about learning. Most of the learning that occurs in our lives never gets called learning. But we’re going to call it out at the CID LLC! Late night trip to the supermarket? Learning. Nasty split-up with boyfriend? Learning. Failed exam? Learning. Envy over roommate’s success? Learning. Singing contest in the elevator at 3am on a Tuesday? Learning (there’s definitely going to be some learning there).

  • Why is the idea of community important for student learning? What is the value of involving partners from throughout campus? 

Tim: Humans are social creatures. That got baked into us on the savanna long ago. Belonging to a group kept us alive then, allowed us to flourish – and it still does. We care about what the people we care about think. We are responsive to them. Think of a time you missed the mark in a group setting and all eyes were on you. Or a time when you got the trophy – and all eyes were on you. A lot of learning can happen in those moments. Or what about all those times when you were in the crowd watching someone else? We’ve all been there. We learn a lot from each other. Where to step and where not to. How to jump. And sometimes how to fly.

Kiyah: Although I cannot speak directly to the benefits on student learning – I am no expert there – I do believe that exposing ourselves to a diversity of ideas, experiences, opinions, and backgrounds through partnerships across campus is what will provide us with the greatest chance of creating something meaningful and sustainable.

  • There is a growing cadre of people on campus who have been in Faculty Principal roles. What do you think you will learn from them? 

Tim: I’m so grateful for the wealth of experience on campus. These people – these families – have lived this. They’ve had ups and downs. We’ll need to have our own ups and downs, but it’s so reassuring to know that there are people we can turn to – people who care. One thing I especially want to learn is how to hold the reins loosely.

Kiyah: So much, to be sure! I think we will learn how to balance work and personal life. I think we will learn how to make the most of our personal space, shared space, and of campus. I think we will learn about the ways we haven’t imagined that our kids will grow and benefit from this experience. We have the incredible good fortune to have their shoulders to stand on. And one day we can do the same for another FP.

  • What do you think will be the most gratifying/surprising/fun/interesting/or difficult aspects of this endeavor?  

Tim: Watching our children watch other peoples’ children.

Written by Sandy Broughton. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

In addition to his role as Associate Professor of Geography, Tim Baird was a 2019 Visiting Scholar with the Global South Studies Center at the University of Cologne, Germany. He has been Director of the Pathways to Sustainability Minor at Virginia Tech since 2015. Also in 2015, he started a project with collaborators in mechanical engineering and education at VT to examine how these approaches could be integrated to study the relationships between movement and engagement in educational settings. With support from VT’s ICAT and ISCE as well as Steelcase, Inc., the BUILD project (Boosting University Infrastructure for Learning + Discovery) has ongoing efforts in several VT buildings, including Goodwin Hall, the Moss Arts Center, the New Classroom Building, and Cheatham Hall. With colleagues in the U.S. and the U.K., Tim has worked with rural Maasai communities in northern Tanzania for 15 years. Currently, they are studying how mobile phones have impacted women’s and men’s social networks and vulnerabilities. For the past two years, Tim has collaborated with a professor in South Korea to examine student-centered learning in comparatively collectivistic and individualistic societies. Closer to home, Tim has collaborated with diverse groups on many university initiatives including the Campus of the Future working group of the Beyond Boundaries campaign (2015-16), the Pathways General Education transition (2015-17), and the Commission on Fraternity and Sorority Life Culture (2018-19). And since 2016, Tim has served as a senior fellow at ICAT, where he works with a small group of diverse academics to seed out resources to radically collaborative projects.

Kiyah Duffey has an equally impressive and diverse resume. After earning a doctorate in Nutrition with a focus on Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kiyah made the difficult and exhilarating decision to leave academia. Consulting with organizations like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Walmart, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Nestle brought her to the front lines of nutrition research, policy, and practice. These experiences provided radically new perspectives on the relationships between science and business and the collaborations that move these organizations forward. Currently Director of Strategic Innovation for the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech, Kiyah is also Co-Founder and CEO of Kizingo LLC. Since it was founded in 2016 with the mission to use nutrition science to design children’s feeding products, the company has grown its product line and now has brand representation in 20 countries around the world. As Kizingo’s CEO, Kiyah has collaborated extensively with product and graphic designers, patent and licensing attorneys, accountants, engineers, and many others – from VT students and alumni to international CEOs.