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The Good Ideas Keep Coming

TC's Provost's Investment Fund continues to fund innovative new projects
By Joe Levine

In 2007, TC Provost Tom James created the Provost’s Investment Fund in order to seed innovative cross-disciplinary and collaborative proposals submitted by faculty. Funded projects had to meet three conditions: They must address an issue of major societal concern; they must bring together faculty from across disciplines; and they must show potential for adding more value to the College, whether by attracting more funding from other donors or by fostering academically fruitful alliances with other institutions.

To date, Provost’s Investment Fund grants totaling as much as $20,000 each have been awarded to nearly 60 projects, including a new master’s program in change leadership, an innovative high school curriculum that focuses on the national debt and budget deficit, and the nation’s first master’s degree program for diabetes educators.

This past fall, the Provost’s Investment Fund awarded grants to eight new projects. In the following story, Inside spotlights three of those projects, all of which are still in preliminary stages of development.

Helping Young People in Foster Care

For most children in foster care, officials in the system seek a permanent placement with a family. In New York City, however a small subset of young people (about 1,000) fall under a program called APPLA (for “Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement”), which, among other things, gives them the option of remaining in foster care – usually in group living facilities -- for an additional three years after they turn 18 (the point at which other young people typically exit the system).

Recently, Douglas Hoffman, the supervising judge for the New York County Family Court, launched an effort to provide children in the APPLA program with additional educational and social resources as they enter their late teens and begin readying for the transition to independence.  As part of that effort, this past spring Hoffman’s court liaison, Melissa Wade, reached out to two TC faculty members, Lalitha Vasudevan and Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, to ask them to create a program at the College that can supply APPLA teens with mentoring, tutoring and social support.

Vasudevan, Associate Professor of Technology and Education, has previously provided court-involved youth in alternative-to-incarceration programs opportunities to create films and other multi-media narratives using personal computers, cell phones and other off-the-shelf technologies. Sealey-Ruiz, an Assistant Professor of English Education, is a literacy expert who, in addition to her work at TC, teaches weekly with African American and Latino male high school students.

“Our vision is to create a seminar that would bring together TC faculty and students interested in working with court-involved youth,” Vasudevan says. “There are so many people at the College who are already doing that work, and so many students come here hoping to work with that population, that it would be wonderful if we could create a long-standing mechanism to bring everyone together around that focus.”

Vasudevan and Sealey-Ruiz have been awarded a grant from the TC Provost’s Investment Fund to begin their work. By next fall, they plan to launch their seminar, which they will design in concert not only with other TC faculty and students, but also with court-involved youth themselves.

“Collective modeling and pulling together is the essence of the Provost’s grant,” Sealey-Ruiz says. “People at TC are also very generous with their ideas, spirit and time, and these grants give us the space to make collaboration possible.”

Mapping New Directions for Geography – and Earth Science Education

There’s general consensus among educators that geography shouldn’t be about memorizing state capitols anymore. Instead, says Ann Rivet, TC Associate Professor of Science Education, the focus is on “identifying big ideas around place, space and systems to help students understand the nature of where they are and how that relates to other places. It’s a systems and relationship perspective on key societal issues that are global in scope but manifest locally.”

Yet, that perspective and approach is largely absent in the nation’s classrooms. So recently, the National Geographic Society’s Education Foundation has mounted a nationwide effort to reshape geography education. Foundation Director Daniel Edelson has convened a blue ribbon panel that soon will officially recommend changes in research, assessment, and professional development and instructional materials.

At the same time, Edelson has been forging institutional partnerships aimed at taking the panel’s recommendations to the next stage. As part of that effort, Edelson has asked Rivet to create a TC-based Collaborative Center of Excellence in Geographical and Earth Sciences Education.

“There’s a lot of overlap between physical geography and earth sciences education, not only in terms of content and issues, such as ecology and sustainability, but also in the systems approach with which we want students to understand the material,” says Rivet, whose previous work includes research on the learning opportunities provided by classroom models designed to help students understand large-scale Earth system processes. 
Backed by a grant from the TC Provost’s investment Fund and additional funding from the National Geographic Society’s Education Foundation, Rivet is now working to establish an interdisciplinary center that will include representatives from other TC departments, other schools at Columbia (as well as the University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory), and other community partners such as Bank Street College and the New York Hall of Science.  She will also head a working group that will thoroughly review the research on the overlap between earth sciences and geography curricula. Ultimately, Rivet hopes to develop additional funding proposals that will be submitted to government organizations, NGOs and science-oriented companies such as Google.

“The goal is to bring the teaching of geography and earth sciences into the 21st century,” she says.

Leadership in Swallowing Disorders, a New Medical Field
This past year, the majority of speech-language pathologists surveyed in hospitals and nursing homes reported that they treat more cases of swallowing disorders (known as dysphagia) than any other disorder. In acute-care settings in New York City, up to 90 percent of speech-language pathologists’ caseload consists of patients with dysphagia.

Those numbers have jumped dramatically over the past five years, reflecting dramatically increased awareness of the problem as well as advances in the field.

“People don’t think about swallowing much, but we do it approximately 1,000 times per day –we swallow food, water, medication, and even our own saliva,” says Georgia Malandraki, Assistant Professor Speech/Language Pathology. “There are many adults and younger patients who, for many reasons – neurological and structural – are dealing with problems in head and neck areas that are causing swallowing disorders. They are at risk for developing pneumonia from aspirating liquid or food into their lungs, or even dying. We now have many innovative new diagnostic procedures we use, and new treatments and therapies as well.”

For example, thanks to trans-oral robotic surgery, surgeons can now help patients with swallowing disorders occasioned by head and neck cancers without having to make major incisions made in their throats.  Last spring, Salvatore Caruana, Chief of Head and Neck Surgery at Columba Medical Center and one of the few New York City surgeons who performs the procedure, approached Malandraki about a possible collaboration after she gave a talk in his department.

“Not everyone’s a good candidate for this surgery, so we’ll look at patients before, to see how the tumor is affecting their swallowing and whether the brain has made changes to compensate for it, and then a few weeks and six months after, using fMRI, to see how the surgery and swallow therapy have affected swallowing physiology and neural activation,” Malandraki says.  The partnership, which also includes Robert DelePaz, Columbia’s Director of Neuroradiology, and TC alumnus Winston Cheng, who is Chief Speech Pathologist at Columbia, is receiving funding support from TC’s Provost’s Investment Fund. “Ultimately, we plan to write a larger grant and look at pre-surgical information as predictors of outcome so that we can determine which patients will be truly helped by the surgery,” Malandraki adds.

Malandraki hopes the effort will blossom into a full-fledged swallowing/neuroimaging center further down the road. How would such an endeavor fit TC? The College is already a leader in speech-language pathology, the field in which swallowing research and therapy – a field that has formally existed for only the past 30 or 40 years -- is generally situated. This summer, TC will open a swallowing clinic at the Edward Mysak Speech and Hearing Clinic, under Malandraki’s direction.

“Many of the muscles and nerves we use for both speech and swallowing are the same or similar, although swallowing requires a lot more muscle force,” Malandraki says,  She also explains why she chose to take a position at TC rather than to work at a large medical center after completing her post-doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  “TC was the one place I felt I could make a difference because it was mostly a language-based program. I felt I’d be a good fit and that I could help establish something new. Both the Provost and the hospital at Columbia have been very supportive of my work.”

Published Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012


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