Learning Sciences PhD Program Expands to 43

Learning Sciences PhD Program Expands to 43

Learning sciences students present workStudents in professor Marcelo Worsley's Inclusive Making class present their work, Photo by Steve Drey.

After nearly two decades teaching literacy and working for equity in Chicago Public Schools, Leslie Russell wanted new tools for change. She’s now pursuing a doctorate in learning sciences at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy because “schools shouldn’t be places that recreate the inequities that are so common in the rest of society,” she says.

“We’ve had a real equity focus and we have great intentions and say the right things, but we are not making progress,” says Russell, a certified reading specialist with a master’s degree in instructional leadership: literacy, language, and culture. “Now I want to figure out the system or the structure to take back to a real school setting to create an inclusive, generative and sustaining education.”

Russell is one of five new learning sciences PhD students and two master's students who started this fall, expanding the program to 43. She is joined by Gautam Bisht, Charles Logan, Vien Nguyen, Melanie West; and master's students  Megan Butler and Cortez Watson Jr. Though they have a wide range of backgrounds and research interests., they share a common goal: To make learning environments more equitable.

What is Learning Sciences?

Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy pioneered the disciplinary, research-based field of learning sciences by launching the nation’s first program in 1992. Building off that success, the School created a joint doctoral program in computer sciences and learning sciences, a learning sciences master’s program, and a concentration at the undergraduate level.

The Learning Sciences program trains students to study –and challenge–how learning works and why it’s organized the way it is. Coursework spans three main strands, including cognition, or how people think and reason; social context, or how people learn with others and with tools; and design, which includes creating programs and systems for informal and non-traditional learning environments.

“Learning science is unique in that we mess up our own research,” said Peter Meyerhoff (PhD20). “Traditionally, you develop an intervention, put it into place and don’t touch it. We take the oppositive view. If something isn’t working, we’ll tweak it, make changes and tweak it again. It’s the active, creative collaborative dimension to learning sciences that makes it exciting.”

Program applicants have a wide range of interests, including research, teaching and training, software development, school administration, social justice, and the study and reform of learning environments.

Read more about our newest class:

Gautam_BischtGautam Bisht, originally from Dehradun, India has been working in rural Bihar for last five years. He is interested in education learning systems that consider the cultural capital of children at the margins. He is currently working on projects with schools, community learning centers and women collectives to create an archive of local knowledge on sustainable food systems. Last year he registered a non-profit organization, Sinchan, to develop multilingual tools, experimenting with teaching and learning frameworks and building curriculum modules.

Charles LoganCharles Logan was most recently the educational technologist in the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University. He taught college writing and high school English for nine years before joining the Buckeyes. Drawing on critical pedagogy and connected learning, he researches how educators and students construct, maintain, and grow equitable online community spaces for teaching and learning. His interests include design justice and thinking about how students, staff and faculty can partner to resist technology's harms.

vien NguyenVien Nguyen comes from Philadelphia. For the past few years, he taught grades 6-8 at a research center for children with learning differences. Outside of teaching, Vien worked in a variety of capacities around social emotional learning - from after-school programs to parent support groups to non-profit journalism. Vien is interested in educational ecosystems that are responsive to children’s emerging interests in their earliest stages. Towards this end, Vien is working to develop tools to document these interests as they arise in everyday contexts. These tools would blend qualitative ethnographic methods and learning analytics. Vien hopes that his work can eventually benefit children with learning differences, in particular those who are high-functioning on the autism spectrum.

Leslie RussellLeslie Russell has taught everything from kindergarten through grade 12. She most recently taught English and Latin American Literature and led professional development training at Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago. Russell worked to build equity in the curriculum and deconstruct traditional power systems in classroom and school-wide structures. As a teacher, she emphasized building her students’ writing skills because “it can help them create space for themselves and others who are underrepresented in the power structure,” she says. “The work of writers is to name ideas that are persistent but have no voice.” Russell was an elected member of the Local School Council, co-chaired the Professional Personnel Leadership Committee, and led professional development for Payton. She is an avid geneology researcher and the mother of four active children.

Melanie WestMelanie West has a background in music and electrical engineering and is interested in learning how music can improve STEM literacy in adolescent youth of color. She also studies using environmental justice to motivate the pursuit of STEM solutions, particularly in preadolescent youth. For the past decade, she has been working fifth graders around the issue of climate justice, helping them to understand climate change and the intersections between climate change STEM.” I'm really interested in whether or not the climate action can be a motivational factor for youth to get more involved in STEM careers to find solutions,” she says. West is also interested in the intersection of music and coding. ‘That place where you can start to become creative with both,” she says. “Currently, Melanie works in TIDAL lab on curriculum development for TunePad at Northwestern University and is program director for Quest4Earth, an environmental justice and STEAM program.

Master's Students

Megan Butler

Cortez Watson Jr. has a background in education, youth development, and learning science and is pursuing a master’s degree. For the last 22 years, he’s been working in youth development with a specific focus on informal learning for African American males, both adolescents and, more recently, adults 18 to 25 years old. He is particularly interested in research around learning and informal instruction in different social and cultural contexts. “How do we understand the brilliance of someone who is, by definition, an active gang member but has his bachelor’s degree?"

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/23/20