Newswise — When Kathi Kern started as an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky (UK), she walked into her first lecture hall buoyed by the teaching awards she received as a graduate student.
But she quickly realized that lectures and rote memorization of facts were not enough to grasp the attention of 300 American history students. Most students did not look forward to history courses and asked for the final exam questions on the first day, simply to pass.
“It was not why I went into history,” said Kern, who is joining the University of Miami this summer as its first vice provost of education innovation, after twelve years as an administrator and more than 30 years teaching at UK. “I thought there were compelling stories that needed to be told about gender, race, rights movements, and religion, so I decided I could not teach that way anymore.”
Upending her curriculum, Kern crafted a new course that enabled her UK students to better retain the information. After reading and analyzing multiple perspectives about significant historical events, they presented them in a creative way—such as through simulated press conferences.
“I wanted to restore the sense of exploration and discovery I had as a student of history,” said Kern.
She went on to champion a mind shift at UK that prioritizes inquiry-based learning and student engagement across its 19 schools and colleges.
Now she is eager to do the same at the University of Miami.
After more than two decades of teaching experience, in 2010, Kern founded the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at UK, which has expanded ever since. In 2018, she was appointed UK’s associate provost of teaching, learning, and academic innovation. In that role, Kern led a team of 27 full-time staff that work to ensure Kentucky students have a positive educational experience, and that faculty receive resources and guidance about teaching, should they want it. Kern also consults with colleges in Pakistan, India, and China about effective teaching methods and has even received research funding to determine the most useful classroom strategies.
Selected by a search committee of faculty members and educational staff leaders from across the University, Kern said she was attracted to the new role because of the pervasive desire among University of Miami faculty members to offer students more research and experiential learning opportunities and to elevate their teaching expertise. She was also encouraged by the University’s commitment to lifelong learning.
“We motivate our students if we give them real-world, hands-on problems to grapple with,” she said. “From architecture to marine biology, UM faculty are committed to engaging students in research. I want to build on that and make sure that all of our students have the opportunity to apply what they are learning in authentic ways. If students have the chance to collaborate across disciplines to come up with solutions to problems, especially in a public-facing context, they really start to own their education. They aren’t just fulfilling requirements, they are building the knowledge and skills that will enable them to navigate the future.”
Kern is also eager to work in a place with such a diverse student population and wants to help foster a greater sense of inclusion in classes. At UK, she worked on initiatives to help first-generation college students, women, and underrepresented students excel in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines and hopes to continue that effort at Miami.
Yet, Kern recognizes the challenges ahead. In an ongoing research study of 7,000 students, Kern said she learned how isolating the COVID-19 pandemic was for young adults and said that the social components of learning—like studying with friends or working collaboratively—will need to be restored in the coming years. This awareness about the needs and desires of today’s learners, along with her experience designing exciting and valuable college courses, set Kern apart from other candidates, said Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost.
“Kathi understands that universities can be that source of intellectual nutrition to a very broad community, well beyond our traditional definition of student,” Duerk said. “In addition, as a fellow faculty member and scholar, she is interested in the opportunities for developing pervasive teaching excellence here and wants to ensure that these resources are possible for our faculty.”
As part of her new role, Kern will be responsible for designing the university’s strategy in leading the educational revolution, as well as its execution. She will also lead the Platform for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, a facilitating group that highlights teaching excellence at the University and offers resources for faculty members to improve their instructional skills. And she will oversee the University’s Quality Enhancement Plan with Allan Gyorke, the assistant provost for educational innovation, and will work closely with the office of Academic Technologies, a division of the University’s information technology department.
At UK, Kern has also built programs for learners and stakeholders outside of traditional degree programs, like certificates, and mini-master’s degrees. As an administrator, she worked to expand online learning at UK and led a team that developed 50 fully online degree programs for adult learners in the past three years. Under Kern’s leadership, there was a threefold increase in the number of fully online students at UK, she said.
When it comes to leveraging digital tools for learning, Kern has a wealth of experience using electronic storytelling in her classes. She even worked as part of a UK delegation that partnered with Apple to roll out a smart campus initiative where every first-year student received an iPad. As part of this effort, her team led faculty workshops and established a teaching innovation institute so that UK instructors could learn the best ways to integrate these tools into their classes.
Laura Kohn-Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development, led the search committee for the new vice provost and said Kern’s experience and commitment to improving the student and faculty experience is inspiring.
“We are at an inflection point to advance innovation in teaching and learning on campus, and Kathi knows the field well. So, she can provide a vision, but she also has extensive experience implementing these goals on a college campus,” Kohn-Wood said. “She can help us do some really exciting things at UM.”
Kern is also a prolific scholar, whose research focuses on the intersections of American history and religion, as well as education. Her first book, “Mrs. Stanton’s Bible,” centers on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who helped spark the women’s suffrage movement but also opposed the religious oppression of women’s rights. Since Kern’s scholarship often includes religious philosophy, she will be joining the Department of Religious Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences as a professor, with a secondary appointment in the School of Education and Human Development.
This fall, Kern looks forward to visiting classes and getting to know the University’s students and faculty members. She is also eager to get students involved in more research. This can help them understand the need for a course like calculus and motivate them to excel, she said.
“We need to think about how we want to bring students into the University and have them rediscover a sense of wonder at the big questions that occupy the faculty,” she said. “Looking at how we teach has to be a vital part of that journey, and we need to incubate new ideas and new approaches that absorb our students in the big ‘so-what’ questions of our time.”