Learning Sciences PhD Program Prepares Graduates for Leadership in Learning Designs

Learning Sciences PhD Program Prepares Graduates for Leadership in Learning Designs

Paulo Blikstein

Paulo Blikstein (PhD09), a graduate of the Learning Sciences doctoral program who is an assistant professor in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, directs the Transformative Learning Technologies Lab, where his research focuses on how new technologies can improve STEM learning. Blikstein is one of many Learning Sciences PhD graduates who have gone on to found organizations, forge ahead in research, or innovate in businesses and schools.

The Learning Sciences program at Northwestern University was the first of its kind in the nation, and faculty and alumni continue to be leaders in this expanding field. The program prepares graduates to advance the understanding and practice of teaching and learning, with research and course work emphasizing instructional and technological innovations as well as the design of effective learning environments.

Learning through Research
Faculty in the Learning Sciences program conduct cutting-edge research about teaching, learning and organizational reform. This research includes developing curricula for authentic science, computer modeling for engaging science students and increasing teacher awareness of student thinking. Many graduates excel in academic contexts, recognized for their research and teaching.

For example, this year Victor Lee (PhD09) won the Jan Hawkins Award for early career achievement presented by the American Education Research Association. An assistant professor at Utah State University, he is an instructional technologist known for his innovative work in K-12 scientific learning. Lee credits the Learning Sciences program for “providing a great foundation for me and encouraging me to do some rigorous and bold thinking.”

Blikstein creates and researches cutting-edge educational technologies, such as computer modeling, digital fabrication, robotics, and project-based learning environments. “Northwestern has a unique program that strikes the perfect balance between theory, design and research methods," says Blikstein of the Learning Sciences program.

Designing for Informal Environments
Alumni excel in environments beyond academia as well. Nichole Pinkard (PhD98) founded the Digital Youth Network, a groundbreaking after-school and in-school program that provides guidance with the latest digital technology to Chicago teens. Pinkard is a leading advocate for digital literacy, which she says is critical for citizens of the 21st century. 

Five Learning Sciences graduates — Matt Brown (PhD02), Eric Baumgartner (PhD00), Ben Loh (PhD03) and Brian Smith (PhD98), along with Pinkard — founded a noted firm called Inquirium, which designs museum exhibits and educational software. Since 2000, Inquirium has consulted with or created products for the Museum of Science and Industry, Brookfield Zoo, Adler Planetarium, Intel and Adobe, as well as universities. In 2009 Inquirum debuted an ambitious project at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center: The Take a Stand exhibit immerses participants in a virtual world where they come to grips with bullies threatening another group.

Joyce Ma (PhD01) is a senior researcher at the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco. She says, “The Learning Sciences program informs all aspects of my research at the Exploratorium, from the theoretical underpinnings of studies I design to the methods I use in their execution to the data analysis and result implications.”

Interdisciplinary Themes
The Learning Sciences program is distinguished by its interdisciplinary approach, with faculty members affiliated with departments including Psychology and Computer Science. The program is based on the understanding that successful research in learning sciences requires multidisciplinary perspectives, methods and collaborations. 

Three themes woven throughout the curriculum are design, cognition and sociocultural contexts. Dor Abrahamson (PhD05), the director of the Embodied Design Research Laboratory at the University of California–Berkeley, recognizes "the inextricable reciprocities of these strands — individuals learn via participating in technologically constituted sociocultural activities. I owe so much to my mentors at SESP for insisting that I develop a well-rounded view of teaching and learning, and I strive to instill this triadic orientation in my own students.”

Erica Halverson (PhD05), an assistant professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, adds, “The Learning Sciences program at Northwestern is one of the few programs that treats the science of learning as a field in and of itself. Understanding the cognitive and sociocultural foundations of learning and designing learning environments that take advantage of these insights are the cornerstones of what it means to be at Northwestern. I have found that my perspective is in high demand as more and more educators have come to value the science of learning.”

Unique program qualities
Associate professor Bruce Sherin, coordinator of the Learning Sciences PhD program, points out some of the unique features of the program. "We really try to practice what we preach. We work hard to create a learning community where students and faculty work together, on a daily basis, on cutting-edge research projects. Our PhD students don't go away for months for solitary work on their dissertations. They come to campus for regular work with colleagues," he says.

"One of the unusual features of our program is that ... our students have a year to 'shop around' for a faculty adviser, as they get a better understanding of the learning sciences as a field and of the work of Northwestern's faculty," he adds. "Our Learning Sciences faculty collaborate regularly with faculty from other disciplines at Northwestern, and students often take courses in other departments." In addition, all students in the Learning Sciences PhD program are guaranteed five years of funding that includes tuition and a stipend.
Photo of Paulo Blikstein in his lab at Stanford by Editora Abril/Tony Avelar courtesy of Revista Exame.
By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 12/22/15