Featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education

In February 2019, JMU X-Labs and the Community Innovations class were featured on the front page of The Chronicle of Higher Education in an article called “No Textbooks, No Lectures, and No Right Answers. Is This What Higher Education Needs?” written by Senior Writer Beth McMurtrie.

Community Innovations

The communities we live in endure many complex problems, and although many people want to help solve them, it’s not as easy as it looks. Effective and sustainable change requires collaboration, creativity, a willingness to take risks, and the courage to fail. This course is a passport to active, creative, and impactful global citizenship. It helps students build vital and transferable skills for their careers, and the work they accomplish becomes a signature entry in their professional portfolios.

Spring 2021

Community Innovations: Food Insecurity

Domestic Food Insecurity is characterized by individuals or households who are uncertain where their next meal will come from. In 2019, an estimated 35 million Americans lived in food insecure households (USDA, ERS, 2019). Food insecurity is a symptom of larger economic and social issues, including poverty, unemployment/underemployment and systemic racism and disproportionately affects children, seniors, communities of color and college students. For many households, the pandemic has worsened both the economic circumstances and food insecurity and has forced many new households to seek food assistance for the first time.   

Students from nursing, the chronic illness minor, dietetics, WRTC, & statistics will apply foundational knowledge of food insecurity, examine local data sets and use disciplinary skills, in teams, to improve problems of food insecurity in one of several population groups under study. While the course will build on foundational concepts of food insecurity on a national and state-wide scale, students will focus problem solving around local issues related to poverty and food insecurity. The course was envisioned together with the MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, who will run a parallel course in the fall of 2021.

Community Innovations: The Future of Learning
Working in interdisciplinary teams, students and faculty in this JMU X-Labs course will prototype ambitious hybrid and online education projects with the expected goal of contributing to the future of learning at JMU. Students will explore best theory and practice in hybrid and online learning, gain experience working in interdisciplinary teams while using a variety of innovation and design methods, and practice skills that enable effective responses to complex and pressing problems.

At semester’s end, course participants will showcase their work to members of the university administration and faculty, who will assess those ideas for potential future development and implementation.

This course is supported by President Alger’s Pandemic-Related Learning and Innovation Taskforce, JMU X-Labs, the Office of Student Affairs, and the colleges of Arts and Letters, Education, Integrated Science and Engineering, and Visual and Performing Arts.

Fall 2020


Undergraduate and graduate students and faculty from Writing Studies, Public Policy and Administration, Math and Statistics, Social Work, and Graduate Psychology  worked with the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County to help serve the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) population of Harrisonburg and surrounding counties. This is the second time that Community Innovations has worked with the United Way, and this year, students explored how to collect data about how COVID-19 has affected the economic, social, and health of the ALICE population:

  • Data – Incomplete and decentralized data create challenges for organizations on deciding how to spend their limited but valuable resources most effectively. Without a uniform dataset, organizations form their own rubric and research, creating silos, decreasing their own effectiveness in analyzing the status of the ALICE population and how to best serve them in collaboration with other efforts.
  • Fundraising – There is relatively weak support of non-profit agencies by various levels of government. The burden of filling in financial gaps often falls on community organizations over relying on private donors, competing for donors, and applying for the same funding resources. Organizations also typically feel pressured to share clients’ stories to generate a greater sense of empathy among prospective donors in the hopes of moving them to make financial contributions. These dynamics can deplete capacity, create tension and division among community organizations, and increase the potential of exploitation and othering of ALICE.
  • Hunger – Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, food insecurity rates have reached 11.2% (a 6% increase since 2018) in Rockingham County, and 15% in Harrisonburg City, acutely impacting the ALICE populations and increasing rates among seniors and households with children.
  • Infrastructure – Different sectors are having different conversations around housing, with no comprehensive mapping of the issue. There is currently no way to show areas that are in need and lots of different actors are involved with different approaches, further complicating the matter.
  • Innovative Tank – The ALICE population is likely the most significantly impacted
    population of any income-level demographic due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many new
    modalities of communication information sharing have arisen in the past few months, but we
    have yet to see how agencies and organizations are adapting to blur their boundaries to
    better share resources (human, information, financial, etc.) towards a more common goal.
    Also, in our small region, we have a diversity of autonomous organizations competing for
    limited resources by presenting themselves as experts in single or dual services, hindering the
    ability for integrated, system-based social service provision. In essence, how do traditional
    approaches to collaboration need to be taken apart and rebuilt to meet the ALICE challenge in the pandemic moment?

Spring 2020 – Addressing Human Trafficking


Human trafficking is on the rise across the globe, exploiting and enslaving roughly 40.3 million people worldwide (https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm). In the spring of 2020, professors from seven different disciplines (communication studies, health sciences, hotel management, justice studies, nursing, statistics, and writing, rhetoric and technical communication) mentor mixed students teams as they develop impactful solutions to select problems, such as the following:

  1. Law enforcement collaboration (Arc Aspicio)
  2. Coordination of community efforts (NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center) – Create a system for local agencies to coordinate efficiently and effectively to respond to people affected by human trafficking.
  3. Human trafficking education in Virginia schools (New Creation) – Address misconceptions about human trafficking and find ways to overcome barriers for schools in Virginia to implement existing quality training on prevention of human trafficking.
  4. Addressing stable homes for those recovering from experiences of human trafficking (Shared Hope International) – Increase the number of sustainable and healthy placement options for children recovering from human trafficking that provide stable and supportive environments.
  5. Stopping child exploitation in digital environments (U.S. Department of Homeland Security: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) – Find new ways to stop child exploitation in digital environments.

Read more here: CHBS faculty co-teach course on human trafficking

Spring 2019

This semester we partnered with the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County to look for systemic solutions to particularly difficult challenges for  the local ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) population. Using a variety of tools associated with ideas around design thinking, collective impact, and the lean startup model, students are researching, interviewing and prototyping solutions to these complex and “wicked” (intractable) problems:

  1. Access to affordable childcare
  2. Challenges related to the public transportation system
  3. Issues surrounding the relationship between the university and local non-profits

Fall 2018


Collaborating closely with community partners on real problems in the healthcare and education sectors, students are learning to use design-based research methods and apply them to real challenges faced by our community partners. Working in multidisciplinary teams and collaborating with faculty members from across disciplines, students work with community partners to understand their work and how to respond to the challenges they face, talking with experts across the country as they design innovative solutions for the following partners:

  1. Gift & Thrift
  2. Plains Elementary School
  3. The Suitcase Clinic

Class Websites

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Client Partner

  • Does your organization face local or global challenges in healthcare, education or security?
  • Are you aware of a technology that could transform your industry but you don’t have time to explore it?
  • Does your organization have long–range design problems that you don’t have the resources to solve yourself?
  • What if you could hire graduates who are ready to start working on your top needs from Day One?

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