Learning About Learning: Master's Program Takes Students Beyond The Classroom

By Lee Prater Yost

Erin Hersher
Erin Hersher
Photo by ©Mary Hanlon

Erin Hersher, a 2004 graduate of the Learning Sciences (LS) Master's Program, is doing what she always hoped to do: using her artistic talent and art history knowledge to make a living.

As a content developer at the Art Institute in Chicago designing an online art education resource for teachers, Hersher, draws on the knowledge of learning environments she gained through the LS program and continues her master's research.

"I want to develop interdisciplinary education through an artistic lens," says Hersher, who graduated from the University of Oregon in art history. She designed web sites during Seattle's dot-com boom.

After the boom went bust, Hersher came home to Chicago and discovered the LS master's program. "I'm interested in combining education, technology and art," she says. "I realized I had to learn how people learn — so I started looking at this program." Hersher found both cognition and design in the LS program — and, moreover, "I liked the sense of community."

Hersher is representative of the type of student the internationally-renowned program attracts. She has a strong academic background, real-world work experience and a desire to apply cognitive concepts to learning environments.

"We look for students with interesting backgrounds and some post-graduate degree work experience," says program coordinator Andrew Ortony, a professor of education, psychology and computer science. Ortony attributes the widespread interest in the program to word of mouth about its "very good reputation," its small, friendly community and its unique interdisciplinary approach to learning.

The LS program's focus is "a mix of how the mind works and how people learn, from both a cognitive and social context perspective," Ortony says. Students conduct research, design projects, gain insight into cognitive processes and, as Ortony puts it, "learn how to design artifacts to facilitate learning."

This focus applies to both the LS master's and doctoral programs. "In many ways, the PhD and MA students look the same," says Ortony, and the course requirements for the four-quarter master's program are identical to those for the first-year PhD program. Both programs are research- and project-based.

The master's and doctoral programs have a strong international reputation. "We were the first LS program in the nation - others have tried to replicate us," says Ortony. "That we're a small, intimate program where all the students know one another and the faculty distinguishes us from other, newer programs." Word of mouth attracts foreign students, who make up about 30 percent of the class.

Beyond the requirements of the two programs, the biggest difference between them are the students' goals. MAs and PhDs have different life ambitions, says Ortony. Whereas the majority of LS doctoral students plan on an academic career, the master's program attracts students interested in exploring the science of learning in a variety of contexts and settings — such as schools, corporations and museums.

Although some MA students hope to be in classrooms after graduation, others see themselves applying the lessons learned in the master's program to cultural milieus such as theater, television, music and publishing. The master's project - a key degree requirement undertaken in the spring and summer quarters — focuses on research relating to the design, implementation or evaluation of learning solutions, which students explore at a wide range of organizations.

For her master's project Hersher worked at the Art Institute developing an online art education resource for teachers that focused on the impressionist and post-Impressionist periods. As a content developer in the museum's education department, she made educational material available for teachers and students online. While not interested in classroom teaching herself, Hersher is excited about applying her artistic background and her knowledge of cognition to provide classroom teachers with resources.

Like Hersher, Chicago-born and raised LS student Meridith Bruozas also worked in a museum's education department - at the Shedd Aquarium, where she developed classes for school groups, summer programs, online lessons and informal learning opportunities for aquarium guests. Her previous experience as a high school science teacher was a "valuable experience in thinking about how students learn," says Bruozas.

Currently using both her high school classroom teaching experience and knowledge gained from the LS program, Bruozas is designing national reform-based curricula for middle and high school classroom for SESP's Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools and the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling. "What I like about LS is that it allows me to do educational activities in other environments besides classrooms, such as software, video, television and publishing. It opens up doors to other learning environments," says Bruozas. Her ultimate career goal is to improve the educational content and creativity of children's television programs.

Laura Neff came to the LS program interested in teaching, and she still hopes to be an elementary school educator, but she says the program has opened her eyes to other possibilities, too. Her master's project experience at United Learning in Evanston (now known as Discovery Education) "was so wonderful that I am continuing to work for them," says Neff.

As a member of the project development team, she worked in research, assisting in the design of the interface for the new Discovery Health web site and training teachers to use the site. "I liked the freedom the LS program offers to explore your own interests and the focus on cognition and technology. It was such wealth of possibilities: new ideas, new theories and perspectives." Currently she focuses on research, design, evaluation and programming.

The lessons learned in the master's program lead to success. "Historically, graduates of the program have secured interesting positions, often related to technology and learning," Ortony says.

He points to Soojin Chung (02), a Seoul native, who now works for Disney in Hong Kong; Souyeon Woo (01), an exhibit designer for the Korean National Children's Museum; Michael Braden (01), a performance developer for Walgreens and Jenny Coyle (03), a multimedia project manager at Scott Forsman.

The class of 2005 is expected to be as successful as its predecessors. Ranging from recent college graduates to workplace veterans, they have come from across town and around the world to gain practical experience and tap into SESP's wealth of opportunities. Just like the alums, all have one thing in common: A desire to learn about and affect the educational process, through means as varied as research, seminars and fieldwork.

Danny Cohen (United Kingdom), who works with "at risk" youth, is interested in community leadership in a learning context.
Gregory Dam (U.S.), a chemistry teacher, wants to enhance his teaching skills.
Katherine Linsenmeier (U.S.), a math teacher wants to study students learning.
Albert Park (Korea) wants to enhance his teaching skills with technology.
Chira Patel (India) is interested in educational reform.
Enid Rosario (Puerto Rico), who is involved in a social psychology research project at the University of Puerto Rico, wants to investigate how adolescents learn and develop in the context of family, school and community.
Liza Pono (U.S.), a volunteer at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is interested in producing children's educational software.
Elizabeth Sullivan (U.S.), director of student education programs at the Chicago Children's Museum, hopes to effect school reform in the primary grades.

Leanne Prater Yost is the former SESP webmaster.
By Lee Prater Yost