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K-State Today

May 15, 2019

Tobler, Vennum awarded K-State Excellence in Engagement Award

Submitted by Chandra Ruthstrom

Tobler and Vennum

The Office of the Provost and the Center for Engagement and Community Development recently awarded Michi Tobler, associate professor of biology, and Amber Vennum, associate professor of couple and family therapy, the K-State Excellence in Engagement Award.

The Excellence in Engagement Award highlights excellence in faculty or staff who engage in scholarship via research, teaching or outreach. The recipients demonstrate innovative and sustained efforts in university and community engagement.

Tobler has shown a passion for campus and community outreach, while demonstrating the importance of connecting nonexperts in the Manhattan community to K-State scientists' research in informal, relaxed environments. Tobler has effectively worked to bring scientific research to the public through innovative engagement.

Tobler says he hopes to be able to bring awareness to the research of the world-class scientists at Kansas State University and build interest and involvement among members of the public who are not informed. One avenue is The Science Communication through Community Engagement project partners with Jared Bixby, curator of education at the Sunset Zoo, as well as with USD 383 and USD 475, the Flint Hills Discovery Center and the Kansas Science Communication Initiative to promote the collaboration of nonexpert members of the community and K-State scientists in order to learn about science in a fun, interactive way. This project has reached more than 2,600 members in the Manhattan community. The initiative has hosted 40 public outreach events in efforts to increase participation of nonexperts in science and research topics.

In order to better prepare K-State scientists for public dialogue, the Science Communication Fellowship Program was launched through this project to train graduate students and postdoctoral students at K-State on key communication strategies that will help them interact with the public in a way that allows the audience to use relatable life experiences to understand the research being presented. Through this project, Bixby and Tobler aim to host workshops and exhibits in the Manhattan area that are geared toward being interactive and creating enriching conversations about science. These workshops reach adults, children and families around Manhattan and provide hands-on learning opportunities. The Science on Tap event is hosted at Tallgrass Tap House, in downtown Manhattan, and is one of the several ways that this project encourages members of Manhattan to engage with science topics, but have an enjoyable time in the process. Through these efforts of strategic communication and community outreach, Bixby and Tobler hope to promote more approachable discussions of science in a way that is not intimidating for the public to understand and allows K-State scientists to gain experience in more effective ways of presenting their research.

Vennum's project, Kansas Alliance for Healthy Positive Schools, or KAHPS, has resulted in collaborations and partnerships aimed at addressing unmet mental and relationship help needs of students and their families in area school districts. The project was started to address suicides, depression and anxiety, and interpersonal issues that were disrupting learning and school completion at area high schools. This partnership has primarily involved the Manhattan-Ogden and Geary County public school districts and the community organizations that work closely with them.

Through these partnerships, the program has established free school-based therapy for students and their families; conducted needs assessments to inform priorities; developed a trauma-informed classroom management approach; provided trainings for teachers and school staff on mental health and relational issues; collaboratively sponsored parent engagement nights; and received federal funding to implement a healthy relationship curriculum. The project also gives graduate students in couples and family therapy valuable experience.

Vennum places an average of four student therapy interns at Manhattan High School's east and west campuses each year to provide family therapy in collaboration with the school counselors. Student therapy interns also are placed at Junction City High School's Freshman Success Academy. Both school districts also have been active partners with the project in developing a trauma-informed management structure called Working on What Works, or WoWW. Vennum received funding from K-State and the Greater Manhattan Community Foundation to further develop and test WoWW with the local schools, and it is now used by the Freshman Success Academy as its classroom management strategy. In addition, Vennum and K-State faculty members Michelle Toews and Elaine Johannes secured funding for a relationship education curriculum called the #RelationshipGoals Project for the Freshman Success Academy and Junction City Middle School. The program is provided on non-school days, and each semester, more than 20 K-State undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of different programs serve as research assistants and program facilitators in classrooms of seventh through 10th graders. The Geary County school district has given its approval to a pilot integration of the #RelationshipGoals Project and WoWW into the normal school day as a universal social-emotional intervention. Vennum and collaborators are working on research papers from the data they have collected.