$5 million grant to help platform provide a boost for teachers

Pamela Edward, 05-22-2023

The Platform for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami aims to transform and elevate postsecondary education for the 21st century. A $5 million grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation will strengthen those efforts.
Sherman Foundation
A $5 million grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation will establish the Ilene M. Dresner Endowed Fund for Educational Innovation. 


With the arrival of Julio Frenk as president in 2015, the University of Miami set in motion a process to transform course delivery and classroom design. This transformation—to improve student engagement, integrate technology with pedagogy, and reimagine classrooms for the 21st century—is a strategic priority for the University 

The Platform for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (PETAL) launched in 2019 under the leadership of Laura Kohn-Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development, and Allan Gyorke, assistant provost for educational innovation and chief academic technology officer. From its inception, PETAL was designed to translate empirical research into strategies that would put the University in the vanguard of advancing the art of teaching and the science of learning. 

PETAL has now received a major boost from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation: a $5 million grant to establish the Ilene M. Dresner Endowed Fund for Educational Innovation. This gift significantly will expand PETAL’s scope and enable the platform to evolve into an institution-wide ecosystem that addresses teaching challenges, incubates solutions, and communicates them throughout the University’s campuses and in the higher education community. 

The fund’s name honors the late Ilene Dresner, a 1969 graduate of the School of Education and Human Development. Dresner’s husband, Bruce Dresner, also an alumnus, sits on the foundation’s board and has a long history of engagement and support with the University. 

The gift is part of the University’s Ever Brighter: The Campaign for Our Next Century. The most ambitious in the University’s history, the $2.5 billion campaign is set to conclude in 2025, when the University will celebrate its centennial.

“I have always championed the immense potential of the University of Miami to pioneer educational innovations that foster student success,” Frenk said. “This transformative investment by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation will significantly strengthen our efforts to incubate, disseminate, advance, and recognize excellence in teaching and learning across our three campuses.”

Kohn-Wood explained: “The idea behind PETAL was related to what I think is the strength of a place like the University of Miami—moderately sized, but also a Research One institution with 12 schools and colleges, nine of which have undergraduates.” 

“It is critical that the University, with its wide range of disciplines, ensures that students have the kinds of classroom experiences that enhance their learning. And this is done through having excellent teachers,” she continued. “On the flip side, in Ph.D. programs, nobody really teaches you how to be a great teacher. We assumed for many years that good teachers are born, not made, and that’s not true. The research shows that you can absolutely help people to be good teachers.” 

As Kohn-Wood pointed out, good teaching means much more than simply standing in front of a class with a PowerPoint and talking—and that moving beyond that model can be challenging for teachers and students alike. “It’s a lot easier to default to what we know, and part of the culture building relies on creating a different kind of academic experience for students that goes beyond just content delivery,” she noted. “It’s about engaging the students in a shared learning experience that activates the content." 

Since its inception, PETAL has collaborated with partners across the University to host workshops, learning groups, and speaker series. It also provides faculty members with an online repository of teaching and learning resources; in addition, it sponsors awards that recognize excellence in teaching. Instructional innovations are implemented in real time, giving students access to cutting-edge learning opportunities. 

In 2022, PETAL took a major step forward with the arrival of historian Kathi Kern, the inaugural vice provost for educational innovation, who also joined the College of Arts and Sciences as professor of religious studies. 

Kern was previously at the University of Kentucky, where she taught for 30 years, putting teaching innovations into practice in her classes. In 2010, she founded a teaching and learning center that, in her words, “became a crucial campus resource for faculty development.” 

Like Kohn-Wood, Kern is mindful of the challenges inherent in creating a lasting culture of instructional experimentation, but she is excited about the partnership with the foundation and what it will enable the University to do. The Endowed Fund for Educational Innovation will provide support to elevate faculty teaching and student learning—in perpetuity. 

Kern said she was drawn to Miami by the Roadmap to Our New Century, the University’s strategic plan as it approaches its centennial in 2025. “I was persuaded that this is a university with an appetite to innovate,” she said. “I see this as an opportunity to actualize those elements of the roadmap that focus on incubation. That’s what this gift is going to allow us to do,” she added. 

“The model for teaching and learning centers has evolved since they first started in the 1990s,” Kern continued. “PETAL is a more flexible model that brings together and coordinates different resources for teachers. My goal is to build on everything that Dean Kohn-Wood and Assistant Provost Gyorke have done and continue to foster a culture of academic innovation in the classroom that addresses what our students and faculty need right now.” 

The ideas that Kern envisions incubating might include new ways of assessing students’ mastery of course content or ways to manage the impact on the pedagogy of generative artificial intelligence systems, like ChatGPT—a particularly pressing concern for faculty members across all disciplines. 

Part of the gift will fund a distinguished presidential scholar position for PETAL. “We will seek out national or international experts on particular issues, like generative AI,” Kern explained. “We will open it to the campus community and have a core group of faculty who want to study with that person for a year in a faculty learning community. The goal is to generate new strategies that we can incubate and study, see what we’ve learned, and carry those lessons back to schools, colleges, and departments.” 

Kern believes that good teaching starts with good course design. “It’s about bridging gaps. Here I am with all my disciplinary expertise as a scholar, and here is where my novice learner is, or my early major, or my senior capstone,” she said. “How can I design a journey for them that will enable their mastery of the concepts and skills they need? I really think that if we don’t engage students in producing some of the knowledge themselves, we’ve lost an opportunity.” 

“We started PETAL with a working group of faculty,” Kohn-Wood recalled. “We piloted some ideas and adjusted as we went. This gift will allow us to scale up our efforts and institutionalize the idea that to be a faculty member at the University of Miami means that you will be an excellent teacher—you will know how to optimize the classroom experience for your students.”