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NEH Challenge Grant brings the humanities to life

In 2015, Bismarck State College was awarded a highly competitive $500,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Challenge Grant. These grants strengthen the humanities by encouraging non-federal sources of support and helping institutions secure long-term improvements in and support for their humanities programs and resources. The BSC Foundation is on track to secure the 2:1 match required by the grant.

The resulting $1.5 million BSC endowment funds Bringing Humanities to Life - a project designed to meet the identified need in North Dakota for humanities-based workforce skills and lifelong learning. BSC faculty have the opportunity to do research, collaborate across disciplines and grow professionally through faculty fellowship.

The program includes humanities programming and a long-term planning process. Fellows receive stipends for spring semester to pursue research and professional development involving the humanities. In the fall, fellows teach what they’ve learned to the community at large, positioning BSC faculty as a resource for lifelong learning for the communities it serves. This program will continue for five years and is available to all full-time faculty of any discipline on campus.

Below are the stories of two BSC faculty projects made possible by the NEH Grant.


While on a mother-daughter date to Barnes & Noble, JoDe Knutson-Person, BSC associate professor of chemistry, happened upon a book titled, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating” by Alan Alda.

JoDe Person-KnutsonShe was immediately intrigued by the interesting title and quirky caricature on the cover and already knew she liked the author. Alda aims to help those in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields learn communication skills so that the excitement of their discoveries resonates with the general population instead of resulting in confusion. After purchasing and reading it, Knutson-Person wondered if and how she could implement some of Alda's ideas at BSC.

Michael Tomanek, associate professor of English and BSC’s National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Challenge Grant coordinator, connected her with Kelsey Menge, assistant professor of Speech. “I was immediately hooked. When I read this book, I caught myself smiling several times and thinking, ‘How great is this?’ From there, JoDe and I partnered up on this endeavor. I’m so glad to be working with her.”

Alan Alda BookThey applied for and received a NEH Bringing Humanities to Life fellowship. Knutson-Person hopes to equip her students with the communication tools they need to explain what concepts they do and do not understand.

For those in the communication field who don’t have an interest in science, STEM concepts and discoveries can be hard to grasp.

“Understanding is a huge part of what we are working on, both from science to communication and communication to science. Often I hear and have been guilty of this, too, ‘Well, I just don’t get it. I’ve never been good at it, so I’ll never understand it.’ I think bridging the gap between STEM and communication will bring forth more understanding to our students and the stakeholders and maybe turn the conversation in a positive direction,” shared Menge.

The two professors will attend an Alda Method Immersion Experience in New York this summer. In
addition to implementing Alda’s recommendations in their classrooms during the upcoming school year, they’ll host workshops throughout the fall and spring semesters to demonstrate techniques for improving communication among individuals working in the STEM fields. They plan to reach out to local businesses whose employees could benefit as well.

Knutson-Person and Menge are very grateful for BSC’s commitment to invest in the humanities, which means an investment in their students. “BSC is invested in opportunities for employees, students and the community in order to reach for excellence. As a new faculty member, I am extremely grateful to have this opportunity to get involved,” said Menge.


To give the students in his directing class a better understanding of all that goes into producing a play, Danny Devlin, Ph.D., assistant professor of Theatre, applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to create the North Dakota Ten Minute Playwriting Competition. He was awarded the grant and said he hoped for 150 play submissions for the theme, “What Happened to the American Dream.” Instead, he received more than 500 from playwrights across the United States.

Short Play FestivalThroughout the fall semester, Devlin read through all of them. After narrowing them down, largely based on whether or not they met the submission criteria and aligned with the theme, he shared them with a select group of 12 readers, including the directing students, who chose the winners. “A rigorous reading process has led us to six diverse and interesting scripts,” said Devlin. “These were the plays that enflamed the imagination and passions of our students the most profoundly.”

The winning plays were written by playwrights in California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Devlin said all of them were very generous in offering their time to his students. “It’s going to provide them with a lot of really interesting opportunities, both to take on responsibility as an artist, but also to collaborate with someone else in the artistic process, which we so rarely get to do in theatre.”

Devlin said he’s grateful for the NEH grant that allowed him to create this playwriting competition. “The opportunity to conduct research in innovative, educational delivery methods is of the highest value for professors at this school. We’re always looking for ways to innovate and keep the classroom up-to-date.”

The plays that were chosen were performed at BSC’s Short Play Festival in May. The festival is put on by Bismarck State College Theatre and the BSC Drama Club, in collaboration with the Humanities North Dakota, as part of the HumanitiesND yearlong "Game Changer Ideas Festival,” and with the North Dakota Council on the Arts.