"These students will not ask questions. They prefer to try to do it themselves, and they struggle. They grew up in technology and they will not ask for help. They are more comfortable asking their peers. I watch that struggle. The question is: 'How do we engage this generation?"
"We need to go from memorizing to mastering, so students can compete in the job market."
Earl Givens, Jr. is a techie. He smiles his big smile, to bring you along with him, while he talks like this: Holograms. Augmented Reality. Microsoft Hololens. Holographic Wearable Computers. Blending the digital world with the real world.
He stops to allow you to catch up with him and acknowledges how far out there he is. He uses more words: "Pretty insane. Pretty sweet. Cool technology."
And then, he goes deeper. He spends a lot of time figuring out how revolutionary technology can help today's college students, who may not be the techie that he is but who grew up with technology. Technology has made us different. To reach today's students, colleges must not only recognize this and adapt, but also get out front.
That's where Earl Givens, Jr., director of the Corriher-Linn-Black Library at Catawba College, wants to take the college.
"These students are the new, underserved population," he says. "They will not ask questions. They prefer to try to do it themselves, and they struggle. They grew up in technology and they will not ask for help. They are more comfortable asking their peers. I watch that struggle. The question is: 'How do we engage this generation?' They will say that they are OK. We have to meet them where they are at."
Givens has a $100,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum of Library Science (IMLS) and a $150,000 grant from Greg and Missy Alcorn of Salisbury that he is pouring into an "active learning center" and Maker Center at the Catawba library.
The technology makes Catawba one of the leaders in this field. "We're cutting edge ... ahead of the game, if we continue our momentum," Givens says. The technology makes students more employable, helps with recruitment of new students, and gives students an opportunity to master 21st century technology skills.
Givens stands in the middle of the empty learning center, and he tells you that he can fill it with students in a virtual reality world so that you see the hands-on learning that happens here.
"This is not futuristic," he says. "This is reality. This is an opportunity to move the library into the 21st century."
He sees an academic world where students "own their own learning. We need to go from memorizing to mastering, so students can compete in the job market."
The active learning lab, which he stops short of calling a virtual reality lab, has been named the ICE Box (Innovate. Collaborate. Engage.) Everything in it – desks, chairs, computer and printer tables – is on wheels to allow students to work collaboratively. "We moved it out of the lecture model so that we could engage in a different way," he says.
The ICE Box has nothing to do with lectures, he says. "If you are faculty and you request this space for a lecture, we will tell you no," he says. "This is where those lectures get turned into hands-on learning. This is where students are able to imagine, create, and see that creation come to life."
Theater students build stage models in 3D before they go to the shop and put their plans into action. They can see potential problems in 3D that they would never see in a two-dimensional blueprint. In 3D, they can virtually walk around the set.
Theater students studying the history of theater might create a theater company, instead of writing a paper about it. They write the production and create an advertising poster that they trigger to come alive on cell phones. It helps to tell the story. Today's students won't stop to read a poster, Givens says, but if you engage them in the world where they live through augmented reality and they see what the production is about ...
"A poster is two-dimensional. Sixty-five percent of millennials and under will actively tune it out," he says.
To the traditionalist, this is jaw dropping. To Earl Givens, this is simple. "The technology is there. It's affordable," he says. And necessary. He talks about the Catawba student who was offered a job with a California theater company because she could do augmented reality. She actually turned down that offer and has started her on theater company.
"You can't get a job saying 'I wrote a history paper on theater.' You can get a job if you know how to market augmented reality.
"This is stuff you can't do from a book. You cannot. It's impossible."
Students working in The ICE Box can not only design a motorcycle helmet but print it. Once the Digital Maker Lab is up and functioning, large-scale designs can become 3-D.
Givens explains holograms by telling you to think of repairing your kitchen sink. A hologram will allow you to see inside the sink fixtures.
With holograms, you can look inside the human body. Students can see how the body would function during medical situations. Chemistry and biology students could print molecules.
Think about the heart. If you look at the heart in a book, you only see the front of it. Givens wants students to be able to look all the way to the back of the heart.
In math, holograms makes it easier to understand graphing.
Instead of writing a paper in history class, he has seen students choose a historic project and create Wikipedia pages posted online for the world to see. "Students loved it," he says. "They took that assignment seriously."
Givens chose Catawba over a position at the University of Texas, with plans for a Virtual Reality lab at Catawba.
Once out of college in Kansas, Givens' original career path was the traditional – library science – but soon he was traveling to the 1,200 public and academic libraries in the state of Kansas, teaching rural libraries how to manage technology. He moved on to Emporia State University as electronics resources librarian, and then digital resources librarian. The university won an award for augmented reality, but more important than awards, the school used the technology in its recruitment and began seeing real results. A brochure that "came to life" for potential students resulted in a 63 percent "reach." Student enrollment increased from 4,000 to 6,000 students. "You could show a student all the activity that occurs on campus," he says.
This technology started in the 1960s with the U.S. military, but fell away because of expense, he says. Sweden picked it up.
In his path away from the traditional, Givens has been invited to London, Sweden and Spain to discuss his work.
Givens leaves you spinning with possibilities. His big smile is still in place. He knows that he has a long way to go to shift teaching models. "Research is valuable, but we need that learning enhanced so that the content becomes real to students," he says. "Sometimes you need a lecture. Other times, you need to supplement that lecture and give students the historic content to create."
He talks about the challenge of this. "I am asking people to use their imagination, and they don't know what to imagine," he says. But he has no doubts about this path. It will come.