Highlighting Adjunct Faculty

with Keith MacDonald, Adjunct Faculty, Biology

Photo of Keith MacDonald

By Ryan Scrimger, MFA, Adjunct Liaison for the Center for Educational Excellence, Departments of Theatre and Music

Take a moment to sit under a tree near a fountain on a breezy sunny afternoon. Take your light lunch and a computer so that if given a chance you might click off some necessary emails. As the norm on USD’s campus, these cherished places only take a few steps to find - it’s the moment in time that becomes the challenge to carve out -  as most of us are booked with classes, meetings, committees, office visits, grading, research, parking searches, and receptions. Within five short minutes of sitting, you are likely to see current and former students, colleagues and acquaintances from other departments and centers, and at least one campus tour group passing through. If you become a static point for all this passage, perhaps you’ll be treated to a welcome interruption as I was recently.

What interrupted me? A jocular tease of “Hey there!” Keith MacDonald has been a steadfast presence at USD for the past 18 years. He has occupied various roles in the Biology Department and has participated in a plethora USD workshops, committees and special events. I always run into him at receptions where we regale over our semesters as they were, or as we hope them to be, upcoming. Since I met Keith in 2011, he has served as a science lab manager, taught a biology class and is now the building manager for the Shiley Center for Science and Technology.

On this particular day, Keith was strolling back from the UC (University Center), having represented the science building’s tour script updates at the student-ambassador training luncheon. A familiar thought came to my mind - I’ve got to take one of those tours! I often am intrigued by what our Torero Tour Guides are saying, not only about student life and the departments with which I work, but also the spaces and buildings we populate. (Note: Should you wish to take a walking tour of the campus, they happen daily M-F at 10:00am and 1:30pm and last approximately 90 minutes. Faculty may participate anytime with a simple heads up to Undergraduate Admissions.)

Keith had finished collaborating with Dr. Michel Boudrias (Marine Science) on the new tour script to highlight the latest art and architectural features and improvements of the Shiley Science Building. For example:

  • Did you know that the light sculpture chandelier (titled “The Experiment” created by David Smith) was recently re-engineered? It was originally designed to be a representation of wavelengths of light under a microscope.
  • The 2 middle monitor screens in the main hall are cycling through short videos taken 24-hours prior in that hall and so you could see yourself walking through yesterday!
  • An interactive touch screen on the 4 corner monitor screens allows you to change the LED colors of the light sculpture, too.

Updating this unique technological art as a scientific expression was a complicated process. Now that it is active and intentional, tours can highlight it and, if you are feeling daring, you can lie down on the polished metal at the center of the atrium, look up and watch the light waves change.  

For those of us who take advantage of the cultural community events at USD, finding out what is happening on our campus is easy. There is always something exciting going on. There are emails, digital signs, flyers, and announcements ubiquitously. That’s why I often ask colleagues, “Whats your next big event” rather than “Do you have anything coming up?” I know there will be something on their horizon or I will give them a chance to take a releasing breath and they can say, “Ahhhhh, I have a break” (the rarer response).

Keith has been a part of two USD Faculty Learning Communities through the CEE, including Flipped Classroom Teaching and Team-Based Learning.  I asked him about his next big event, expecting to hear that Keith’s latest Faculty Learning Community was embarking on an investigation into pioneering pedagogy of…(fill in the blank), instead he surprised me with the announcement of his participation in planning the STEM Fair, which at the time of our conversation was upcoming and since has been held, March 21, 2017. This is a networking opportunity for USD’s students to get exposure to professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Keith has a distinctive approach to idea exchanges– he is at once both amenable and antagonistic which makes debate lively and inspiring. We spoke at length about the relationship of each of the sectors within STEM and how the inclusion of arts, thusly changing it to STEAM, impacts the interpretation of the elements together. This allowed us the luxury of theoretically solving world peace, or at least finding that there could be middle ground for scientists and fine artists. Scientists who are motivated to generate definitive attraction to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math often protect the STEM concept from adding the “A” of the arts so as not to dilute the call to these sectors. Discussions about how the arts contribute inevitably to these fields by incubating the investigatory work with collaboration, creative inspiration, problem solving, risk taking, public consumption, interpersonal communication, and empathy - all qualities innately artistic - often become contentious between artists and scientists. When debating with Keith, instead we travel down the various pathways of purity, inclusion, parallelism, and opportunity with equal consideration and find ourselves at a place of harmony where both ideas can co-exist and potential is on the horizon.

While we both enjoyed the beauty of our campus and the exciting changes of the new parkway plaza, our conversation shifted to Keith’s classroom innovation with his students as he introduced a concept on Monday, initiating the investigation of a problem entitled Terraforming Mars in which the students have an opportunity to colonize Mars. They must follow it through to collectively determine the best possible solutions for what organisms to bring by Wednesday with consideration of the effects the solution would have on many varied factors including environmental, economic and support of human needs.

Teaching ecology by having students imagine a relatively blank slate for an ecological system to be founded on is an interesting way to have them think about the realities associated with a key concept in biology, i.e. the interaction of organisms and the environment. First, he gives them some science-fictional building blocks such as a mile-high, glassed-over canyon-based territorial plot complete with a snow-covered mountainous region on one end and feeding a river that flows down to a large lake at the other end. Then he paints a more detailed picture of the water cycling through evaporation to fall as snow on the “mountain” to melt again, which gives them a variety of potentials for building interdependent ecological habitats. When considering the interaction of so many of these factors, it becomes easier to illustrate to the students the deep benefit of liberal arts learning.

Keith is asking his students rigorous questions and showing them the many avenues from which they can pursue the answers. He notices their inexperience and fills that void with his charismatic intent to help them become literate with their world and all its facets. The students meet in BlackBoard groups and in person to formulate their team solutions. They get really exited about the idea because it is extra-terrestrial, yet it can be applied also to earth. It’s not simply a biology class; it’s a life class. It’s the students’ lives. It’s the living world. Colleagues can recognize in Keith by the way he leans in to vitalize conversations that he is passionate about what he does.

Keith has innovated his classroom, continues to be the fulcrum point for the Science Building, and participates and presents at a multitude of campus events. He is a man for all seasons and a fantastic distraction from the tedium of emails on an afternoon of sunshine and campus appreciation. When you see him on campus, and that is likely, give him a smile and ask him “What’s your next big event?”