Centers of Excellence Spring into Action

Centers of Excellence picture

The University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Human Ecology’s Centers of Excellence are off to a wonderful start in 2016. We have been steadily developing our strategic plans and infrastructure over the past two years. 2016 marks a new point in this process – we are fully positioned to take our School of Human Ecology (“SoHE”) traditions of multidisciplinary, community-engaged work to the next level – more projects, more collaborations, and more impact.

I feel very fortunate to help facilitate this trajectory, and play a role in the ongoing legacy of the Wisconsin Idea, through our Centers of Excellence, and special initiatives:

Uniting the efforts of these diverse units are the following key components:

  • They promote creative interdisciplinary work that leverages the breadth of campus resources – through the lens of our “human ecology” – our families, homes, communities, and marketplaces
  • They value and engage in meaningful exchanges with community and industry partners
  • They nurture and deliver knowledge and resources that can be applied in the real world to address real world challenges

Already this year, we have seen signs of our accomplishments to date and signals of the possibilities ahead for our Centers of Excellence.

Dr. Dee Warmath accepts an award. Image by Marcia Stubbeman at NCAA Photos
Dr. Dee Warmath accepts an award.
Image by Marcia Stubbeman at NCAA Photos.

Exciting new awards have been recently secured, including (but not limited to):

— Dr. Dee Warmath’s NCAA and Department of Defense investigation to examine effective ways to teach athletes and young adults about the importance of concussion reporting;

— Dean Soyeon Shim’s continued “APLUS” research to examine connections among young adults’ financial, relationship, and personal well-being;

— Dr. Jennifer Gaddis’s Hatch Award to examine food literacy in low income communities and outcomes for health;

— Dr. Robert Nix’s NIH-funded multi-year Head Start project examining children’s self-regulation and healthy eating;

— Dr. Lori Bakken’s work with community partners to address and evaluate food share outreach to address food insecurity issues in Wisconsin;

— Dr. Janean Dilworth-Bart’s Spencer Foundation-supported work on African American fathers’ perspectives on school-readiness;

— Dr. Carolina Sarmiento’s Baldwin-funded Latino Workers Study;

— Dr. Heather Kirkorian’s NSF-funded work on toddler cognitive control and touchscreens;

— Drs. Alfonso Morales and Margaret Nellis’s Ford Foundation-sponsored work to address food access issues in South Madison, in collaboration with UW engineering students;

— SoHE Incentive Funding Projects of Lauren Papp (marital relationships for “boomerang” couples/families), Heather Kirkorian (children’s word learning in screen and text formats), and Janean Dilworth-Bart (racial disparities in childhood lead levels and correctional outcomes).

We have been building capacity to serve research and outreach work, including through the addition of the talented infrastructure specialist Andrea Plassman to our CORE (“Centers, Outreach, Research, and Engagement”) support team.  Andrea has already been supporting the Center for Financial Security for almost two (2) years, but now also provides her organizational talents to all of our Centers, greatly increasing our capacity for pre-award processes in particular.

We have also developed a shared Centers space for research assistants and secure data for a variety of Centers sponsored projects.  Currently, Professor Heather Kirkorian’s research team, Center for Financial Security student researchers, and Centers of Excellence video/communications Alan Talaga work out of this collaborative space. We look forward to further developing this space with our multidisciplinary Centers contributors, leading to a practical physical home for our active research and outreach work, as well as a symbolic convening and sharing space for work on a broad range of interconnected and overlapping subject matter.

This space is in addition to the general Centers of Excellence area on 4th floor of Nancy Nicholas Hall, where my office and most of our Centers Staff can be found. Up on 4th, in our “Centers Area”, we are fortunate to have the best conference room in Nancy Nicholas Hall — where lots of great ideas are born and develop.

Additionally, we continue to bring campus resources and tools to our researchers through the CORE Support Team Open House and newly launched CORE Support Team Handbook. This fall, we had helpful presentations from the Institutional Review Board, Social Science Computing Cooperative, and Research and Sponsored Programs.

Our individual Centers continue to develop, grow, expand, and make an impact.

The Center for Financial Security (CFS) has recently relaunched its website and continues its phenomenal outreach bringing financial security and coaching principles to communities and individuals. CFS continues its research and publication on a broad range of issues relating to household finance, financial security, and consumer behavior. An emerging international focus may be a next area of exploration, with signs of an increased interest from and collaboration with scholars and professionals working in foreign and international development contexts.  In addition to myriad other forms of outreach that CFS continues to conduct, and other media features on CFS affiliates work, a policy-oriented piece on helping working families avoid poverty by Faculty Director Dr. J. Michael Collins was recently featured on Congressional Blog “The Hill”:

The Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies (the CommNS) continues to host a variety of projects that focus on health disparities, community action and engagement, civic and youth engagement, sustainability, and food systems. This spring, we have added staff to our Obesity Prevention Initiative, a large multidisciplinary statewide project that actively engages communities around their own solutions for a prominent public health problem. This spring we will be engaging our focus area leads and steering committee around plans for 2016-17. These 2016-17 plans will include increased outreach activities, an exploration of how to better respond to the needs of Wisconsin nonprofit and mission-based organizations, and more targeted collaborations around research funding.

The Center for Child and Family Well-Being (CCFW) is in an exciting time of growth and change. We have added several researchers to our SoHE faculty who are specifically focused in areas of contemplative practices across the life span, and in various familial and school contexts. We are excited about several new grant proposals that have been funded or submitted, as well as growing collaborations and campus-wide leadership in multidisciplinary approaches to challenges affecting families. A new early childhood strategic plan featuring our almost 100-year-old preschool laboratory is in the works. Our spring Child and Family Well-Being Seminar series this series is focused on Race, Inequity, and Child and Family Well-Being and features an impressive list of speakers.

Our Center for Textiles and Design enters the spring fully staffed with a new Center Director, Sherry Harlacher; Gallery Director, Lee Gray; and a Textiles Collection Director, Natasha Thoreson. Exhibits this year have included showcases of faculty work and Design Studies graduate student work. We are excited to see where this Center takes its mission in the coming year, with an energized new staff, a new strategic plan, and a robust Design Studies department to support its invaluable collections and resources.

The Kohl’s Center for Retailing Excellence (KCR) continues to build meaningful connections among SoHE students and industry.  KCR started the year by taking 30 students to New York City to attend the National Retail Federation Conference.  Eleven students won national Fashion Scholarship Fund scholarships (we were tied for #1 as the university with the most student winners).  One of our students, Megan Donovan was one of 8 finalists for the Geoffrey Beene scholarship and won $10,000. Alumni Andrea Pease is bringing her team of Kohl’s Tech Designers to campus for a “Day of Inspiration” with the KCR and the Center for Textiles and Design.  They will spend time with students and faculty and will tour the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Later this spring, KCR students will be competing as finalists in national Kohl’s Invitational Case Competition and KCR will host a Women in Entrepreneurship with seven female proven entrepreneurs who are connected to SoHE in some capacity.

Our 4W Initiative (Women’s Well-Being, from Wisconsin to the World), a collaboration with the UW Global Health Institute, continues to conduct its creative community-engaged programming to address advances and improvements for women, and in turn, for communities world wide. A newsworthy development from this Initiative this spring is the formalization of a UNESCO chair in women’s well-being that will be fulfilled by a member of our own 4W team. This is the first UNESCO Chair at UW-Madison and only the twentieth in the United States. This April, the 4W Initiative will also host its first Summit including members of its global network, including keynote speaker and former UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala. In cooperation with the UW Arts Institute, 4W will be hosting Artworks for Freedom exhibits around campus as a part of the Summit. Artworks for Freedom works to bring attention to human trafficking through the power of imagination.

Students view outdoor art exhibit.
Photos from an Artworks for Freedom exhibition in Atlanta.
KAY CHERNUSH | ArtWorks for Freedom

4W will also host in April, in collaboration with USDA, a One Health conference focused on women’s roles in agriculture and human and animal health.

Broad-based, SoHE-wide activities that affect all of our Centers keep us moving, convening, and connecting with our broad network of campus and community partners. We are currently working to deepen and better define the incredible web of UW and community experts working on issues of food systems and food security from a broad variety of disciplinary lenses. Monthly presentations and meetings will be in effect starting in April, and we hope that with such regular opportunities, more advanced concepts and plans for how to collaborate around “grand challenge” food issues may emerge. Similarly, we are engaging with campus partners around topics of “Livable Cities” and on a broad-based collaboration between the State of Jalisco university system in Mexico and our own UW system. I’m confident that by casting our net broadly to embrace potential collaborators around these fascinating multidisciplinary explorations, distinct lines of inquiry and teamwork will develop to allow us to help solve real world problems. And, I look forward to seeing how SoHE Centers of Excellence will increasingly serve as an effective, nimble hub for leveraging our campus and community expertise in tackling big issues and approaching grand challenges in the true spirit of the Wisconsin Idea.

Professor Alfonso Morales speaks at the 20th Anniversary celebration of the Morgridge Center for Public Service.

Professor Alfonso Morales speaks at the 20th Anniversary celebration of the Morgridge Center for Public Service.


This spring, I’ve had the chance to participate in campus events that have been helpful and fortifying reminders of the way our work at the SoHE Centers contributes to the good community-engaged, Wisconsin Idea work of our broader campus community – namely, the Morgridge Center’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, and the UW South Madison Partnership’s first anniversary. I was proud to see how many of our SoHE Centers of Excellence colleagues presented and whose projects were showcased as exemplary community-engaged work at both events.

The first anniversary celebration of the South Madison Partnership.

The first anniversary celebration of the South Madison Partnership.


Needless to say, it’s a very exciting time to be a part of what’s happening here at our SoHE Centers of Excellence. SoHE’s commitment to promoting human wellness and social justice sets the stage for purposeful work across all of our Centers, and helps us acknowledge that our work is really all about better quality of life for all.  I look forward to continuing to provide updates in this regular blog throughout the rest of the spring and summer, and into the next academic year. Please keep in touch with us – and, whether you are a SoHE faculty or staff member, a student, a member of the UW-Madison community, or a member of our local, regional, or global community at large – we hope that we’ll have the chance to work with and learn from you more and more in the time to come.

Stay tuned for news on an upcoming episode of Wisconsin Public Radio's University of the Air dedicated to a Centers-based multi-disciplinary study on mass incarceration.

Stay tuned for news on an upcoming episode of Wisconsin Public Radio’s University of the Air dedicated to a Human Ecology-based multi-disciplinary exploration of the topic of mass incarceration.



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