Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Spring 2016

“We would be doing students a disservice if we didn’t help them master the basic tools that would prepare them to function in society as decision makers, experimenters and creators, and these tools inevitably include technology."


Pratim Sengupta (PhD09)
“I realized the great potential of agent-based modeling— particularly NetLogo—both as a tool for scientific modeling, as well as a pedagogical tool,”


Edu\tech\novators Paulo Blikstein, Pratim Sengupta, Camillia Matuk

By Julianne Beck

For classrooms around the world, SESP alumni are creating new learning tools and techniques to advance education. As the long-term benefits of technological innovation in the classroom become more evident, these Northwestern graduates are reaching across disciplines, economies and cultures to create learning opportunities for today and the future.

Computer modeling in classrooms

Pratim Sengupta (PhD09) arrived at Northwestern in 2000 to study complex systems. He began in the physics department, but after a chance meeting with professor Uri Wilensky in 2004, transitioned to SESP to construct and study computation-based learning environments such as NetLogo, a modeling and simulation program he continues to work with today.

At Northwestern, “I realized the great potential of agent-based modeling— particularly NetLogo—both as a tool for scientific modeling, as well as a pedagogical tool,” he explains. “I still find myself continually surprised by its powers.” He went on to earn a National Science Foundation CAREER award to continue developing ViMAP, a programming language and modeling system based on NetLogo. ViMAP is beginning to be widely adopted by K–12 students and teachers in the United States and Canada who aim to learn science and math by creating computer models and simulations.

After six years as a professor at Vanderbilt, where he helped to establish the Learning Sciences PhD specialization and still supervises PhD students, he now holds an endowed professorship at the University of Calgary as Research Chair of STEM Education. “I do believe that the studies that my lab has conducted and is in the process of conducting with ViMAP will provide significant guidelines to the field for the design of programming languages for the K–12 classroom,” says Sengupta.

Using ViMAP, his group conducted the first study in which children learn science and programming by inventing a programming language. Other work with ViMAP resulted in school turnarounds in Nashville. The key to creating useful classroom technology, he notes, is for it to be both ambitious and practical. “In order to have a long-term impact, we must design ambitious technologies for long-term integration, with the classroom, the teacher, and the realities and constraints of the school in mind,” he says.

Global impact with new technology

Paulo Blikstein (PhD09), an assistant professor of computer science at Stanford University, is bringing modern learning technologies and instructional methods for STEM disciplines into poorly funded public school classrooms. “My research right now is focused on making modern pedagogies available for all children,” he explains. Through his Transformative Learning Technologies Lab, Blikstein is bringing collaborative “makerspaces” into middle and high schools around the world with the FabLab@School project. He leads the global discussion on the use of such knowledge-sharing design facilities through his FabLearn conference series.

Also through the Lab, Blikstein created the “multimodal learning analytics” approach that uses a combination of technologies to examine how students react to complex learning tasks. Additionally, he works with “bifocal modeling,” a framework for science learning that connects student processes and outcomes with model projects in real time.

A former visiting scholar with the MIT Media Lab, Future of Learning Group, he is also the founder and principal investigator of the Lemann Center for Brazilian Education at Stanford. Through this 10-year initiative, he trains and places cutting-edge education researchers in Brazil and contributes to vital research that, “we hope, will allow Brazil to accelerate innovation and effective policymaking in public education,” he explains.

In all, Blikstein is specifically focused on incorporating technology that inspires creativity and innovation. “My hope is that every classroom will have a plethora of these technologies, so every single teacher in a school will be able to incorporate more hands-on activities, more creative work, more ways for children to create their own theories about the world,” he says.

Technology-enhanced science inquiry

Creativity in technology is also at the forefront for Camillia Matuk (PhD10), a former medical illustrator who is now an assistant professor of educational communication and technology at New York University. “My work involves designing, implementing and researching technologyenhanced science inquiry in classrooms and also designing and researching professional development and tools that enable teachers to customize and adapt materials to their changing goals,” she says.

As director of the RIDDLE (Research in Design for Discovery within Learning Environments) lab, Matuk is working to inspire her students to advance their design-related research in a collaborative environment. The lab has drawn participants from varied disciplines, whom she guides from grant writing to securing resources to analyzing data. Her latest research will involve the design of a virtual reality installation on the neuroscience of spatial navigation.

She credits Northwestern with teaching her to think and ask questions like a learning scientist, and for pointing her in the direction of her current professional path. At the 11th International Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Learning in 2015, Matuk presented her research on how students refined their scientific explanations using a tool for sharing ideas, earning the Best Design Paper award. At the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association this spring, she will present her study on how teachers perceive the use of realtime data in their instruction.

Matuk is not alone in acknowledging SESP for pointing her in the direction of her present work. “My experience at SESP was absolutely crucial for my research interests and trajectory,” notes Blikstein. Beyond the classroom, the alumni also acknowledge the positive effect of their SESP group work, learning centers and informal interactions with faculty and fellow students. “During my PhD, I really enjoyed the rich intellectual delights that university life, and in particular Northwestern, has to offer,” says Sengupta.

Early on, these alumni were on their way to making a meaningful impact on the world. Today, that impact is magnified by the programs they have built and the next generation of leaders they are helping to inspire.