2024 ACUI All-Conference Sessions

ACUI Keynote: Temple Grandin and the Way We Look at Things

There is a place for everyone at the education table, and that table may not look the same for everyone, explained renowned professor of animal science Temple Grandin during a keynote address at the ACUI 2024 Annual Conference
in Denver.

“We need people who think differently,” said the autism rights activist who has been at Colorado State University for 35 years. “And the first step to learning is realizing that different kinds of thinking exist.” Diagnosed with autism at an early age, Grandin is quick to describe herself as a visual thinker. That point hits home, as well, in her 2022 book, “Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions.”

An “object visualizer,” Grandin identified others that think as visual spatial thinkers, like mathematicians or musicians, and verbal thinkers, those who think in words. “Visual thinkers, like myself, see risk. Verbal thinkers talk about risk, and spatial thinkers, like mathematicians, calculate risk. The early inventors were object visualizers, they made all this stuff. Now it all comes into this country in shipping containers.”

Grandin made it a point to emphasize the importance of hands-on learning, recognizing there will always be a place for visualizers when it comes to mechanical things, fixing things, animals, photography, and art. It was with animals and her work in developing humane animal production systems that brought Grandin to fame. She then applied some of those same achievements to the needs of autistic people like herself, even designing a “squeeze machine” to relieve her own nervous tension. Modeled after a chute designed to hold livestock in place during branding, the version used by people has served autistic children and adults around the world.

Having published over 30 books on autism and animal welfare, and serving nine years as the executive director of the Autism Society of Colorado, Grandin shared that fear was the one primary side effect of autism. “It is the main emotion with autism; I had horrible panic attacks,” she recalled. “I used to be afraid of two things, airplanes and public speaking, and then I learned to take a scary thing and make it interesting.”

Following her speech, Grandin met ACUI members for a book signing; and during the ACUI Adventure, some attendees went to a screening of the documentary, “An Open Door,” of which Grandin is the subject. In 2010, she was also the subject of a movie, the biopic “Temple Grandin,” which starred Claire Danes.

#ACUI24 Sustainability Panel: Balancing Growth with the Natural World

Climate action, sustainable services, resiliency, and collaborative action took center stage when sustainability professionals from Colorado State University, University of Colorado–Boulder, and the city of Denver shared insights, current activities, and plans for building sustainable resiliency into Colorado’s future. The panel discussion was moderated by Spencer Wigodsky, a Masters of the Environment graduate student at University of Colorado Boulder.

Brian Dunbar, executive director of the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University, recalled that gas was 36 cents a gallon when he was 16 years old. Then the oil embargo hit the United States and suddenly gas was $1 a gallon. “That became the subject of my first research paper; how are we going to deal with systems like that,” he said.

Jocelyn Hittle, associate vice chancellor at CSU Spur, has used her background in ecology and environmental biology to conduct sustainability assessments and implement sustainability goals on college campuses. Her work, she explained, is about “balancing growth with the natural world in a sustainable way.”

Jorge Figueroa, environmental justice manager at Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency, described how a commitment to sustainability and climate action must include a broad coalition of investors, particularly young people. “Our youth, our students, can be the protagonists. They need to play a leading role, now more than ever,” he said.

Damien Thompson, the sustainable food systems specialization lead at the University of Colorado–Boulder, discussed advocating for food justice, biodiversity, and social equity, and the work being done on the issues through the Frontline Farming initiative. “There is a wealth and an abundance in growing food. My mother would say, ‘We were poor, but we didn’t know it,’” he said. 

Together, the four professionals described how unique coalitions between neighborhoods, higher education, governments, nonprofits, and volunteers were working to build the infrastructure and resilient systems in an equitable way that can stave off what could be droughts and other mega-weather events that have yet to be witnessed in the modern era.

ACUI Talks: Transformative Voices: Activism, Opportunity, and Awareness

Three thought leaders on three different but evolving topics presented their own stories of transformative experiences that led them on paths to growth for themselves and their communities. ACUI Talks: Transformative Voices offered insights into how ACUI members could benefit from these speakers’ experiences.

Panama Soweto uses his skills as a poet and hip-hop artist to inform on his abilities as an educator, nonprofit leader, and community activist. Alison Malmon used the pain of losing her older brother to suicide as the impetus to form a nonprofit offering preventative solutions for a generation facing mental health issues. Renée Welch used her decades of experience in higher education career services to lead a transformative apprenticeship program now being scaled up to colleges across the United States. All three offered messages of inspiration, disruption, and collaboration that were translatable to the work of ACUI’s members.

When speaking about her brother, Malmon, executive director of Active Minds said: “The emotion that was most salient to me was fear. As a suicide loss survivor, and because it had happened to Brian, it could also happen to me, and probably, was happening to a lot of people around me.” Malmon went on to explain that the age of onset for almost every form of mental health issue is high school and college age, and that suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. “It’s happening with our youth and young adults, and we are not talking about it enough,” she said.

Soweto challenged anyone who was making art—music, photography, painting—to be the activist that is hidden inside that artist. “If you create art, then you are an activist,” he said. “We can use art to create social change.” Soweto called his primary message CAFÉ: Collaboration, Advocacy, Funding, and Education, and every part of CAFÉ begins with listening. “Listening is the key. In your community, when you are working with youth, you must listen first to their concerns, their aspirations. You have to start by listening,” he said.

Welch, having spent 20 yeas in higher education, including a number of those in student centers, shared how her career path changed unexpectedly after watching the career pipeline “dry up” while she was director of career services at the University of Northern Colorado. That’s when she learned about work-based learning, higher education collaborations with apprenticeship programs, and what other countries were doing with the same programs. After visiting an applied science apprenticeship program in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship, Welch returned to direct a new Colorado State Department of Education apprenticeship program. “My career unfolded in a way a couldn’t imagine because it is often about finding disparate things and realizing what connection might exist. That was the case here,” she said.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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