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BYU President's Report

December 2016

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From My Perspective: Inspiring Learning

By President Kevin J Worthen

I am thrilled to be involved along with you in the intellect-expanding, soul-refining, celestializing endeavor that is Brigham Young University.

This year more than 7,700 of our students have graduated and moved on to the next phase of their lifelong learning process. During their stay here, many accomplished great things, ranging from receiving a Truman Scholarship to temple marriage. We are excited to work with our incoming class.

Improvements continue to be made to our campus. Thanks to nearly 18,000 donors, we completed fundraising for the Engineering Building, and construction is now underway. Other projects are complete or nearing completion.

Assisting Students
You will not be surprised that my message to you will focus on the mission statement and the stated role that BYU plays in assisting students “in their quest for perfection and eternal life.”

During their time here, we are to provide them “a period of intensive learning.” Other portions of the mission statement describe the content and lifelong outcomes of that learning. Above all else, our students should learn “the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Aims document effectively boils the mission statement down to four main points: Brigham Young University is to provide learning that is “(1) spiritually strengthening, (2) intellectually enlarging, and (3) character building, leading to (4) lifelong learning and service.”

Remembering BYU’s Mission
In an effort to even more succinctly explain what we are about in a way that allows people to easily remember, I have tried to simplify the core learning goals of BYU (while still emphasizing that a full understanding requires a return to the mission statement) in a two-word description: “inspiring learning.”

is an interesting word. It derives from the Latin term inspirare, which means “to breathe into” and, more specifically, “to breathe life into” (Oxford English Dictionary). Inspiring is both a noun and an adjective. The noun can be defined as the act of inspiring or motivating. In this sense, the term “inspiring learning” describes actions that inspire or motivate students to learn. As an adjective, inspiring is a modifier. In this context it describes a kind of learning: learning that inspires—or, more precisely, in our setting, learning that leads to inspiration or revelation.

When I use the term “inspiring learning,” I have in mind both meanings of the word inspiring. I hope we inspire our students to learn. And I hope that learning leads to inspiration. When both things happen, inspiring learning occurs, and we can then know we are on the right track to achieve the core goals set forth in our mission statement.

This past January, New York University professor of journalism Jay Rosen came to campus as a guest lecturer. On campus he had what he described as one of the best experiences he has had in 30 years as a professor. Before his lecture began, a student prayed for the class, asking for help “feeling grateful for the opportunity to learn.”

Jay Rosen Jay Rosen, who spoke at BYU in January, posted on Facebook that his lecture here was “one of the best experiences I have had in 30 years as a professor.”

Wrote Rosen: “I found the BYU students a joy to teach. They were extremely engaged. . . . After the talk, at least a dozen of them thanked me, and each one shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and made a personal connection. ‘Grateful for the opportunity to learn’ . . . that wasn’t just words to them.”

Learning by Experience
Experiential learning
has become somewhat of a buzzword in academia in recent years. Learning is enhanced by experiences outside of the classroom. Clearly students cannot learn all they need to learn by memorizing or even discussing principles in a classroom. Experience connects theory with application and deepens our understanding of the principles and truths we learn.

Let me cite as one example the Phage Hunters program in the College of Life Sciences. This program enlists students early on in their BYU experience to begin original research. The students collect soil samples and for the next two semesters work to isolate and identify a bacteriophage that has never been seen before.

Bryan Merrill signed up for the Phage Hunters class as a sophomore. After completing the class, Bryan was hired as a teacher’s assistant and worked as a research assistant and mentor to other students in the class. By the time he graduated from BYU with his master’s degree in molecular biology, he had already published (or copublished) eight research articles and had worked on 23 genome sequences. He is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.

Bryan Merrill As a BYU undergrad Bryan Merrill worked to find a treatment for a destructive disease affecting honeybees. He is now a doctoral candidate at Stanford.

Another illustration of this type of learning is the work of Professor Byron J. Adams. Taking students to Antarctica to research nematodes requires a great amount of perspective and faith. Over the past several years, he has taken six students there.

Professor Adams reports: “The first undergrad I brought to Antarctica is now a faculty member in another department in my college. The second one is a faculty member at the University of California, Riverside. The third is just beginning his medical residency in OB/GYN. The first grad student I [took to Antarctica] is now a geneticist at a USDA research center; the rest are still in my program working toward graduation.”

Byron Adams Biology professor Byron Adams studies nematodes in Antarctica. Being a student researcher in that harsh climate has been life-changing for six students.

You can help provide these kinds of inspiring learning experiences for BYU students by supporting mentored-learning, study-abroad, and internship experiences for our students. This focus is not something new at BYU; it is part of our mission.

Four years ago one of our graduate engineering students, Shannon Zirbel, received a $100,000 fellowship from NASA to work on a project with laminate-compliant mechanisms in space. We highlighted her success in our fundraising efforts for the new Engineering Building.

Shannon came here unsure of what a BYU experience would mean for her. In spite of her uncertainty, she worked hard and subsequently accomplished many things. She left as an accomplished graduate student with a better understanding of who she is as a child of God.

Shannon Zirbel Shannon Zirbel (center) benefited from and perpetuated inspiring learning at BYU. As a doctoral student she received a prestigious grant from NASA.

Enhancing Learning
Propelled by your support, our efforts to enhance learning—with the kind of inspiring education described in our mission statement—can have an enormous impact on all BYU students. This issue of President’s Report features many examples of remarkable students who are having inspiring learning experiences and who are doing world-changing things with your help. We are deeply grateful to you. Your generosity is inspiring to me as well as to our faculty and students.

Your association with BYU is greatly appreciated. I hope that through your involvement here, you are able see, as we do, the majesty of the Lord at work in your life and in the lives of others.


Watch videos about Bryan Merrill, Byron Adams, and Shannon Zirbel. Read the BYU mission statement and aims document at President Worthen’s message to faculty and staff, also titled “Inspiring Learning,” can be found here.

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