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Vanessa Pietras, Ed.M in International Educational Development, Class of 2017
Department of International and Transcultural Studies
For Vanessa Pietras, class of ’17, life after TC consists of working as an international educational consultant and helping the Costa Rica Permanent Mission of the United Nations in New York. As a Costa Rican adviser, Vanessa assists the Sustainable Development and the Human Rights Commission. In addition, she has worked with the Ministry of Education and non-profit organizations supporting schools with curricula for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in Costa Rica.
While Ms. Pietras’ work as an international educational adviser for the U.N. is impressive, she wants others to know that accomplishing her academic and professional goals did not come easy. A native of Costa Rica, Ms. Pietras experienced significant challenges in her early years, including growing up in a single parent household with few resources and very little support. “The first time that I had an entire meal was when I went to my first year of primary school. So it was an unbelievable opportunity for me to become a person…to [go from being] a kid that suffered abuse in her house, to finding a school where I was safe and where I had food. It was the only way for me to survive my terrible childhood.” The bond that she formed with education and schooling became her lifeline and eventually laid the foundation for her to pursue a degree in International Educational Development at TC.
For Ms. Pietras, her TC education prepared her for the critical and challenging task of bringing a STEM curriculum not only to Costa Rican schools, but also to its women. So much more than a pedagogy meant to prepare future generations, for Ms. Pietras STEM represents many of the things she found solace in during her own childhood. STEM is an opportunity that she hopes will reduce the cycle of poverty and combat the chauvinistic ideals and stereotypes that she believes may be hindering Costa Rican society. Ms. Pietras credits her growth as a professional to the professors she learned from and worked with at TC.
Today, even though Ms. Pietras has overcome significant challenges and accomplished so much in her professional life, she has set her sights even higher. “I want to be a role model for women, girls, and underprivileged children.” If she was able to succeed in spite of the challenges she faced as a child, she wonders what current students and teachers can do with just a little bit of support from strong institutions like TC.
By: Tanwaporn Watanaporn & Blessing Nuga
Toni Cela, Ed.D., Class of 2016
Department of International and Transcultural Studies
Dr. Toni Cela is a busy woman. Between being the coordinator for the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED), and working as a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Miami, it’s incredible that she also found time to co-edit a volume, Les Jeunes Haïtiens dans les Amériques/Haitian Youth in the Americas, Montreal: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2017.
Dr. Cela’s drive is remarkable, and rooted in Teachers College’s (TC) values of empowerment and social justice. After she received a Master of Arts in Comparative and International Education in 2001, she returned to TC where she received her doctorate in International Educational Development in 2016. While working on her doctorate, Dr. Cela was recruited by the Office of International Affairs to identify ways to engage in educational development and reform in Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake, and in the process, discovered INURED, a Haiti-based research institute. Excited by INURED’s ability to bring together a diverse group of people from across the social, economic, geographic, and political spectrum, Dr. Cela soon became the institute’s Country Coordinator. “The unfortunate reality is that in countries of the West it is expected that developing nations will follow a similar trajectory as theirs or [that those countries] learn from Western nations that are more advanced. However, we are most interested in intervention and policymaking in response to (social, political, or economic) crises or disasters…[and] the result is that we often find ourselves in a constant state of reaction,” Dr. Cela says.
Rather than focus on solving problems only in times of, or immediately following a crisis, Dr. Cela looks to help create long-term solutions and sustainable change. This is easier said than done. Developing nations, when faced with an onslaught of problems, often have to choose between solving the problems of today or planning for the future. The other difficulty is that planning for the future can only be done with data on hand, which is often not the case for such countries. Working to create systemic, long-lasting change is not an easy task. Dr. Cela deals with negotiating the tension between focusing on long-term solutions and focusing on immediate, short-term solutions. The greatest challenge that INURED faces is attempting to respond to both current crises but also plan for the future. That being said, these challenges are worth the rewards. “It’s unfortunate that much of what we read or see in the media about marginalized communities tend to overlook (or altogether miss) human ingenuity, particularly in situations of extreme poverty and vulnerability. Being in the field allows us to witness devastation, dignity, and resourcefulness at once… Witnessing Haitian ingenuity in extreme circumstances is rewarding, as it gives me hope for Haiti’s future.”
By: Tanwaporn Watanaporn
Editor: Blessing Nuga
Cristiana Mattos Assumpção, Ed.D., Class of 2002
Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology
Olá, Cristiana! Obrigada muito por falar comigo. Let’s start with you telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with Teachers College.
I was born in Brazil and raised in Virginia from 6 to 11 years old. I was alphabetized in English and was greatly influenced by American culture. Back in Brazil, I graduated in Biological Sciences and my first job was at an international school (Graded School in São Paulo). I worked there for 8 years where I taught 5th grade Science and had the opportunity to expand my education through a summer course at NASA. My next job was at Colégio Bandeirantes. I started in 1995 as a Biology teacher and in 1998 I matriculated at Teachers College where I got an M.A. in Education and Computers and an Ed.M. and Ed.D. in Instructional Technology and Media (1998-2002). I have always used computers in education, even before the Internet was invented. My whole career, I have been interested in using technology and different pedagogical approaches.
Now we can find you at Colegio Bandeirantes in São Paulo, where you are the Coordinator of Educational Technology. Can you tell me about the work you do there?
I started working as an Educational Technology Coordinator when I returned from Teachers College in 2002. The first thing I did was create a professional development course called “EduTech” to help my colleagues start integrating more technology into their practices. I also started integrating distance-learning environments in an effort to move us towards blended learning practices. In the meantime, I participated in national and international conferences, sharing our work and increasing my network for partnerships. I started going to the Distance Learning conferences promoted by Associação Brasileira de Educação a Distância (ABED) to encourage them to look at K-12 as well as university levels. I have participated in the NSTA conferences since 2000, first by myself [and then with] science teachers where we started looking at STEM. I’ve also participated in scientific committees and peer review for AERA, ABED, MoodleMoot, and SBGames. I’m on the Advisory Committee for the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report K-12 edition. I have also published some articles and book chapters on our practices and how we incorporate technology.
As you think about where you are now, how have your experiences at Teachers College played a role in the work you currently do?
I still use many of the materials and experiences I had when I was at Teachers College. I refer a lot to the Eiffel Project, which I was a part of for 4 years, where I learned how to integrate technology in public schools. I use the materials produced by my teachers related to the 21st century curriculum, rubrics and soft skills. Everything we develop, we document, publish and evaluate, using much of the Action Research format I used for my doctorate. I could not have developed such a deep change without the preparation Teachers College gave me. I am still in constant touch with TC through our Earth 2 Class project with Dr. Michael J. Passow, an ongoing project we started in 2000, where we partner to expand science teaching with international collaboration.
Last year, you presented a session called “The Intersection Between Social and Emotional Learning and STEAM,” at TC’s Academic Festival. I think many of us are familiar with STEM, but could you explain what STEAM is and how it plays out at your school?
Five years ago, we decided to rewrite our high school curriculum in general, and the science curriculum in particular. We exchanged the separate biology, chemistry, and physics labs for an interdisciplinary course called STEAM. When we started building the vision, we started with STEM, but as we studied more about learning and the importance of the arts in bringing in a different model of thinking and researching, we came to understand that incorporating the arts into STEM would enrich our proposal and offer an opportunity to bring the arts to the high school curriculum. The STEAM course is a science course, but the arts are being integrated through contact with different materials, design, communication, observation, aesthetics and divergent thinking. When we built our course we had a multidisciplinary group of teachers writing the lessons—a biology, a chemistry, a physics, an art and a math teacher. We used design thinking and Project Based Learning (PBL) as the method of investigation to integrate a hands-on approach and collaborative group work into the course.
An example of how the arts helps STEM is when our students study color and images in 10th grade. They start by studying the theory of colors then they study how color is formed through physical, biological and chemical models. They have to use learned material to build Pixel Art and digital filters to understand how the technology they use daily, works. Then they study how animals see and how vision defects can change the perception of color (daltonism). They build special glasses that imitate how daltonism affects vision and try to observe different works of art using these glasses. We are the first school in Brazil to incorporate STEAM in the curriculum, and many schools are coming to visit us to see how we are doing this because they want to start as well.
How is social and emotional learning (these so-called “soft skills”) integrated into this pedagogy?
We integrated student participation, individually and in groups, into the grading system. We have created dynamics where we work collaboratively with the students to build a social contract, deciding the criteria with which we will assess their participation. Then we have several moments where students do self-assessments of their participation, and we have several participation checkpoints and strategies. We also ask students to evaluate the course and give us feedback. In the end, their final grade is 50% tasks and learned content and 50% participation.
The longer class schedule is also important for us to have time to work systematically on group work and for students to become more autonomous and responsible. For students to be able to develop these soft skills, we have to give them enough time to try to do things on their own. Also, our method has the students at the center of the process. We don’t “teach” class. We challenge the students to solve problems and give them the tools to be able to do that. The teachers act as guides to help the students overcome difficulties, but the students should be proactive and investigative.
What are some of the challenges you’re facing in building this active, creative program in an environment that has a long-standing history of prioritizing traditional “hard science” subjects over “soft skills”?
The first challenge was building the vision. We had wonderful lab classes and it was hard for the teachers to give them up. It was also hard for the teachers to rethink their roles and understand their new identities as teachers. They had always seen themselves as the deliverers of content. It is still taking us a lot of discussion and practice to really rethink the vision of STEAM. We have even created a study group–Núcleo de Estudo, Reflexão e Discussão (NERD)—to study the research. One thing I believe we did right was that we are using a blended model: we inserted STEAM and other interdisciplinary approaches, but at the same time we also maintained the traditional theoretical classes. I believe the theory really enriches the student projects, giving us more time to dedicate our activities to the soft skills.
Cristiana, thank you again for taking the time to tell me more about yourself! Before we end, is there something that I have not touched on that you wished we had?
The pleasure is mine! To end, I have to tell you about a few things that really show us we are on the right track. Two of the teachers already did their master’s degree work studying our STEAM course. This gives us external validation and has brought us close to researchers. We have also published some articles and book chapters and have been invited to several conferences to discuss our work. Recently, I presented our curriculum at BETT Brazil. We are also offering courses on how to build a STEAM curriculum to teachers and administrators from other schools. I am finishing a book about our story, which tells the reader how to start his or her own STEAM curriculum. Thank you for this opportunity!
By: Melanie Cooke
Editors: Heidi Liu Banerjee & Blessing Nuga
Gemma Moya Gale, Ph.D., Class of 2015
Department of Biobehavioral Sciences, Communication Sciences and Disorders
Hi, Gemma! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. I was hoping you could start by telling me a little bit about yourself (where you’re from, education background, degree, etc.).
I studied English Linguistics in Barcelona, Spain, and then obtained a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. In 2010, I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to complete a Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology at Teachers College. In 2011, I was awarded a La Caixa Fellowship, which allowed me to pursue my PhD in Communication Disorders at Teachers College. I specialized in the treatment of neurogenic motor speech disorders, especially dysarthria secondary to Parkinson’s disease. During that time I was also extensively involved in the treatment of aphasia and bilingual aphasia. I am now working at the Movement Disorders Unit of UParkinson, at Teknon Medical Center, in Barcelona, Spain, where I work with patients with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
One of TC’s mottos is “education has no boundaries,” and it’s based on the hope that TC can not only bring the world to its campus, but spread TC (its members, mission, knowledge, etc.) throughout the world. How has your personal research experience, and/or your classwork at TC, informed your understanding of this motto?
I completely agree with this motto! TC provided me with a unique opportunity to develop my research and professional interests. During my stay at TC, and as a graduate student, I was able to do aural (re)habilitation in La Paz (Bolivia) and be involved in a cleft lip and palate clinical training in Guatemala, thanks to Dr. Cate Crowley. As a doctoral student, I was the clinical supervisor in a randomized control trial (RCT) in Brussels (Belgium), as part of Dr. Erika Levy’s investigation on pediatric dysarthria; we’re co-authoring a study in the spring to see if those speaking treatments might increase speech intelligibility. Additionally, during those six years at TC, first as a Masters student and then as a doctoral candidate, I was able to present at both national and international conferences (including Sweden, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands) and I also had the opportunity to teach some courses at TC. So education indeed has no boundaries.
We hear that you’re currently in Spain working with Spanish speakers with Parkinson’s disease. I’m intrigued! How did you get involved with this population and this disease? Is this research something you felt drawn to or did it come to you?
That’s correct! I am now working at UParkinson, the Movement Disorders Unit at Teknon Medical Center, in Barcelona. I validated an English-based intensive speech treatment into Spanish for my PhD dissertation and I am now implementing this treatment in Barcelona, where it was relatively unknown. When I started researching about Spanish dysarthria, I was stunned to see there was virtually almost nothing out there to guide speech intervention in languages other than English. I thought my research could contribute to the creation of evidence-based practices in Spanish dysarthria and that’s the line of work I keep doing in Spain.
I am also working as an Assistant Professor at the Open University of Catalunya (UOC), where I teach a graduate-level course, Language Acquisition, and I advise graduate students on their final thesis.
What does this research mean to you?
To me, it means bringing into real-life all these past years of hard work at TC. I find it challenging too because there’s so little research in this area, but at the same time it’s such a priceless learning experience and I am very happy to be developing research in my own language to help my community, here in Spain and abroad. I want to better understand the speech and language characteristics of Spanish speaking individuals with Parkinson’s disease in order to establish efficient treatment techniques in this language and provide other clinicians with evidence-based tools when working with Spanish-speaking populations with this neurodegenerative disorder.
Looking ahead, do you have any future ideas for your career? Any goals you’re currently working towards?
I’m passionate about what I do. I love working in the clinical world while developing cross-linguistic research and teaching students at university to become better clinicians and thinkers. I am working on several publications right now and on bringing awareness of the importance of speech and language therapy in Spain. There is still a lot to do in Barcelona right now, but I’d love to work in NYC again in the future, given the linguistic and cultural diversity that is so characteristic of the city.
Gemma, thank you again for taking the time to tell me more about yourself—I can’t wait to read your answers! Before I end this, is there something that I have not touched on that you wished we had? The stage is yours!
Thank you very much--it was my pleasure!
By: Melanie Cooke
Editor: Blessing Nuga