U-M Steps Up Pace, Breadth of Detroit Research Collaborations

At the end of the school year this spring, the University of Michigan held an event in Detroit to celebrate the various learning and research initiatives it has underway in the city.

Called “um3detroit,” the event’s name was meant in part to highlight the university’s Third Century program, which invested $25 million to encourage faculty and staff to develop innovative, multidisciplinary approaches to learning and teaching—including many projects in the Motor City—and spur creative thinking among students and researchers.

“The university has been working in Detroit for a quite a long time, but we increased the pace of interaction over the decade with significant activities,” says James Holloway, U-M’s vice provost for global engagement and interdisciplinary academic affairs.

One long-running partnership Holloway points to is with the Detroit Urban Research Center, which helps U-M’s schools of nursing, public health, and social work collaborate with community organizations in the city. The center’s mission is to conduct participatory public health research and examine how things like social status, economic success, and even city planning efforts affect residents’ well-being. Wayne State University is also active in some of these public health projects, Holloway says.

The Brightmoor Maker Space, supported by U-M’s Penny Stamps School of Art and Design as well as the Knight Foundation, is another major collaboration the university has underway in the city. Located in a rebounding neighborhood in an isolated section of northwestern Detroit, the repurposed property offers art and design workshops, 3D printing, woodworking, entrepreneurial programming, and more. (This week, the maker space taught kids how to make their own kites.)

Nick Tobier, a U-M professor who helps run the Brightmoor Maker Space, just returned from an exchange trip to Fukushima, Japan, where a maker space called the Ishinomaki Lab has sprung up from the wreckage of the 2011 nuclear disaster there. Tobier went to Japan to trade urban DIY best practices with the folks at Ishinomaki—the kind of collaboration that Holloway describes as one of the most important outcomes of the university’s work in Detroit.

“It’s a chance for partners to discover each other and learn from each other,” he adds.

Other U-M projects going on in Detroit this summer include the archaeological collection and preservation of artifacts found in an abandoned jazz club and pulled from the ground during the 1973 construction of the Renaissance Center downtown; the Poverty Solutions initiative, focused on determining what kinds of economic, educational, and health interventions are successful; and research initiatives regarding green infrastructure, air quality, human rights, migration, land use, and crime.

“It’s a huge range of activities,” Holloway says. “There is hardly a neighborhood in the city in which mutual learning does not occur.”

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