TC: The Next Generation
At an afternoon plenary session in Cowin Auditorium, President Fuhrman introduced four TC professors who are carrying forward the innovative traditions that have distinguished TC for more than a century. The interdisciplinary lineup included Karen Froud, Associate Professor of Speech and Language Pathology, a linguist and neuroscientist who uses real-time imaging techniques to study what goes on inside the brain when people learn; Lisa Miller, Professor of Professor of Psychology and Education, who explores the beneficial effects of spirituality on brain development and psychological health; Christopher Emdin, Assistant Professor of Science Education, who uses elements of hip-hop to teach high school science; and digital game designer Joey Lee, Assistant Professor of Communication, Computing Technology in Education, who uses gamification techniques to engage learners and foster concern for the environment and other pressing societal issues.
“TC has charted new frontiers in education, culture and society at every step of the way in our 125-year history,” Fuhrman said. “We are uniquely positioned to take advantage of major anticipated breakthroughs in cognitive knowledge, neuroscience and technology that will transform education as we know it. Perhaps the human mind is our final frontier of discovery.”
At TC’s Neurocognition of Language Lab which she founded and directs, Froud uses and High-Density Electroencephalography (EEG) and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to explore how brain differences affect human behavior. Froud and her students record what happens in the normally developing brain as it learns a human language or literacy, and also look at various brain pathologies across the lifespan. While other education schools have access to fMRI technology, only TC has an on-site lab that connects brain science and learning across a range of fields.
“Every time we want to understand something about learning, we have to understand something about the brain,” Froud said. “If we can learn more about how people learn, we can better develop pedagogical processes, help provide teachers with tools for more effective teaching and clinicians with more effective tools for intervention.”
For example, she is embarking on a study of the impact of participating in Head Start on the early-language and listening skills of young children. That work could have implications for early childhood learning programs and policies.
Lisa Miller, who recently founded the Mind-Body Institute at TC, opened her presentation with a true story of a teenage girl who years ago had approached Miller for psychotherapy treatment after her father had been murdered in the restaurant he owned. The girl made some progress with therapy but was still depressed months later until she met a boy at a party who shared her deceased father’s first name. “Don’t you see,” she told Miller excitedly, “God sent him; my dad is watching over me.” The girl made a rapid recovery, Miller said, because “she was now in a relationship with a loving, guiding universe, and it was that understanding that made her capable of going forward and making friends and going to school and finding mentors other than her substance-abusing mom.”
The girl’s story prompted Miller to start a decade-long research program that has confirmed her view of spirituality as an untapped source of resilience in youth. “Kids who have a strong, personal sense of relationship with a creator of the universe have 50 percent higher protection against substance dependence and abuse. They are 80 percent better protected against severe depression, even when they come from families at high genetic risk for depression. They are more persistent, do better academically,” Miller said. “The effect is so broad and robust that it appeared to be crucial for basic science, and in turn practice and education, to embrace this extraordinary untapped research.”
In 2012 Miller established TC’s Spirituality and Mind/Body Institute, which is creating a “new host of treatments that are informed by spirituality,” and, along with graduate students, is sharing meditation techniques with residents of Covenant House in New York City, a home for runaway teens.
Miller was followed onstage by Christopher Emdin, who drew cheers and applause with a rap song he’d composed about Einstein’s law of relativity. Emdin incorporates elements of hip-hop, including rap, into science classes for middle- and high school students as a way to engage them in science – an especially critical task, he said, because achievement gaps between white and minority students “triple or quadruple when it comes to science.” Emdin also argues that the same qualities that kids use outside the classroom to create good raps – they are “skeptics, they use keen observation, they are anti-authoritarian, they use evidence-based practices, they are curious, analytical” – are the very qualities that make a good scientist. To harness those skills, he has created Hip-Hop Education (“another first for TC,” he said) to apply hip-hop principles to science instruction, and he teaches pre-service teachers how to use these concepts in high school and middle school classrooms and then measure students’ retention of science content. “We are creating these new philosophers, these new thinkers, these new practitioners, through a more robust look at hiphop and science education,” Emdin said.
Like Emdin, Joey Lee is meeting young students in their own cultural space – in Lee’s case, the world of digital games – not only to engage them and help keep them in school, but to teach them useful applications of the myriad skills they will need to succeed in the digital workplace of today and tomorrow. Lee, an Assistant Professor of Communication, Computing and Technology, closed the mid-afternoon roundup with a presentation about educational games and “gamification,” the design and use of digital games in the classroom. The digital games industry is $50 billion; an astounding 90 percent of teens play games, Lee said. More women between the ages of 18 and 35 play games than men – part of the evidence that digital games, like rap, are not all exercises in violence and misogyny. He and his graduate students design educational games whose objective is to “change the world for good” and to apply gaming principles to solving real-world problems, like climate change. At TC’s Games Research Lab, they have created “Arctic Crisis,” a digital game that puts the task of trying to protect animals and echo-systems in the hands of the player. Players “get this experience that’s very hard to deliver any other way,” Lee said.
The spirit of the session was perhaps
best summed up by Emdin, who quoted John Dewey’s observation that “it requires
troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs.” There was no
mistaking Emdin’s reading of those words: as a call to arms for TC faculty and
students to continue to challenge old ways of knowing and being.