Scholarship in the City: Notre Dame’s Academic Outreach in South Bend

Author: O'Neil, Alison

Scholarship in the City: Notre Dame’s Academic Outreach in South Bend

Thanks to federal and corporate generosity and the diligence of its professors, Notre Dame has received a staggering $138.1 million to dedicate to scholarly and scientific research for fiscal year 2017, marking a new record for the university. Government and private entities including the U.S. Department of Energy, the Lilly Endowment, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Nuclear Security Administration will fund areas of research as diverse as religious experiences, actinide chemistry and infectious diseases.

The city of South Bend and its surrounding areas will reap many benefits from the grants. Some of the research money will help support the Notre Dame Turbomachinery Laboratory (NDTL) in South Bend, a facility that employs some 40 Michiana residents. In addition, nearly $1 million will support the physics department’s QuarkNet initiative, which runs a research program for high school students living within a 50-mile radius of campus.

“The grant money awarded by the National Science Foundation for the QuarkNet project will be used to support professional development for high school science teachers and student engagement by connecting them to professional research projects being conducted at universities and national labs around the country,” says Dan Karmgard, a physics department research professor. “Here at Notre Dame we had 16 teachers & 16 high school students during the summer of '17 engaged on research projects in particle physics, robotics, nuclear physics, astronomy, bio-chemistry, dark matter and gamma ray astrophysics.”

This is not the first time Notre Dame has directly involved the community in scholarly outreach. The university has several education centers that aim to involve South Bend citizens. Notre Dame’s DNA Learning Center, for instance, educates both Michiana-area students and the public on biological issues and studies relating to DNA. The Writing Center has a community branch in South Bend and is also involved in Upward Bound’s Summer Academy, a program that prepares South Bend high school graduates for higher education. Even the Center for Social Concerns proffers a program: Volunteers from Notre Dame tutor South Bend high schoolers on campus.

In addition to its teaching initiatives, many of Notre Dame’s research projects have a direct impact on South Bend. The William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families, for instance, carried out a study in 2006 on the effectiveness of lead exposure prevention initiatives in South Bend. In 2015, the university worked with South Bend’s Historic Preservation Commission to create the Downtown SB app, which is available in the App Store. (This same partnership produced a virtual reality reproduction of early 20th-century South Bend and a 3D model of the city.) Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives (IEI) has been studying Indiana’s educational practices since 2012. Notre Dame writer William Schmitt called this effort an opportunity to “inform policymakers as they seek strategies to improve educational quality in the state of Indiana.” Notre Dame Wireless Institute and the City of South Bend are even collaborating on a technological research initiative known as “SBXG - Platform for Advanced Wireless Research.” The project aspires to “drive workforce and economic development, help evolve the city’s wireless capabilities and infrastructure and attract research funding and wireless jobs to the city,” all while improving our understanding of wireless technology. 

SBXG’s website lists the fruits of several other Notre Dame-South Bend partnerships. One of these is Ignition Park, a startup incubator located fittingly at the abandoned Studebaker plant. When the plant ceased production in 1963, South Bend’s industrial economy suffered a crushing blow. Ignition Park’s presence at the derelict plant marks a change in the economic winds: out of the ashes of South Bend’s Rust-Belt past is rising a new age of technological progress.

Even students from the School of Architecture, Notre Dame’s smallest undergraduate college, have gotten involved. “Arkies” have studied everything from the use of vacant lots in South Bend to housing for South Bend’s most vulnerable individuals. In 2016, for example, students of professor Kim Rollings created plans for a homeless housing project that could improve the mental health of its inhabitants.

Other students can get involved in South Bend-centered research as well. The Center for Social Concerns, for instance, offers grants to graduate and undergrad students interested in community-based research projects.  Examples of past projects include research into financial literacy among the poor and the communication between citizens and government.

Despite the oft-cited Notre Dame “bubble,” both professors and students seem eager to improve town-and-gown relationships through research, ushering in a new era of intellectual collaboration.