Meet SESP's Newest PhD's

Meet SESP's Newest PhD's

Connor Bain at a poster sessionSixteen Northwestern University graduate students recently earned doctoral degrees in three of the School of Education and Social Policy's pioneering programs: Learning Sciences, Human Development and Social Policy, and Computer Science and Learning Sciences (CS + LS), a joint degree with the McCormick School of Engineering.

The groundbreaking Human Development and Social Policy program was founded in 1981 by Bernice L. Neugarten to examine how psychology, sociology and economics help us understand human development over the life course, and how people can affect policy.

In 1991, SESP's learning sciences program, the first of its kind, was developed into a PhD program. In 2016, it expanded again, to the undergraduate level.

Also in 2016, SESP and McCormick launched the Joint PhD Program in Computer Science and Learning Sciences, which builds on enduring and growing connections between research on learning and computation. It was co-founded by SESP professors Uri WIlensky and MIchael Horn.

Connor Bain, one of the first three students enrolled in the program, became the first person in the nation to earn the dual CS + LS degree when he passed his dissertation defense in September.

SESP’s newest PhD’s in Human Development and Social Policy include Andrea Kinghorn Busby, Olivia Healy, Courtenay Kessler, Heather McCambly, and Lynn Meissner. In Learning Sciences, Allena Berry, Spencer Carlson, Sugat Dabholkar, Ruben Echevarria, Ava Jackson, Kit Martin, Abigail Stein, Julissa Muñiz, Jue Wu, and Yanning Yu earned their doctoral degrees.

Read more about our newest PhDs:


Connor BainConnor Bain: Bain's research explores how computational thinking, or framing problems in a way that computers can help us solve them, might be integrated into existing high school STEM classrooms. His dissertation showed that high school STEM teachers, with some help, could integrate CT into their classrooms, simultaneously engaging students in STEM content and deep computational experiences.

“The power of computing lies in the ability to apply it to something,” Bain said. “Computing doesn’t exist in its own bubble.” 

Bain, who immediately stepped into his new role at Northwestern as assistant professor of instruction in the McCormick School of Engineering, wants to bring computation to the masses. It shouldn’t be just a tool reserved for the few, he says. Rather, “it’s a way of empowering people to challenge the world around them. We need the need the next-generation of learners to be computationally literate–to know where and how to use computing to reshape our world.”

As a research assistant at the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-based Modeling for the last six years, Bain has been a crucial member of the CT-STEM project, which helps high school teachers incorporate computational thinking into their curricula, including subjects like biology, statistics, and environmental science. A true partnership, the content is co-designed by teachers and Northwestern researchers and tested in classrooms.

Bain also develops and maintain the Models Library for the popular Agent-based modeling language NetLogo, which is used by tens of thousands of students, educators, and scientists each year.

Dissertation: “Empowering Teachers to CT-ify the Science Classroom: Moving from Educational Technology to Computational Thinking,” which explores the best ways to frame problems so that computers can help us solve them.

“The power of computing lies in the ability to apply it to something,” Bain says. “Computing doesn’t exist in its own bubble.”

Bain, now assistant professor of instruction in the McCormick School of Engineering, wants to bring computation to the masses. It shouldn’t be just a tool reserved for the few, he says. Rather, “it’s a way of empowering people to challenge the world around them.”

Learning Sciences

Allena BerryAllena Berry loves history so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her master's degree at Stanford University, but she made it the focus of her doctorate in learning sciences. Now the newly minted PhD is working as a history teacher at University School of Nashville. “I consider few things more important than education and cultivating a passion for learning,” she says. “How we remember, narrate and teach the past is an inherently political and ethical act.”

Dissertation: "Haunting as historical thinking: Learning to construct whiteness in history classrooms." Chair: Eva Lam

Spencer CarlsonSpencer Carlson relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area where is he is working as a user experience researcher. At Northwestern University’s Delta Lab, he worked on educational technology for design studios. With several team members he created a working prototype for a collaborative decision making digital workspace. He also designed a suite of tools and processes that redefine how students learn civic leadership skills in the Northwestern Civic Engagement Certificate program. And he conducted strategic research to shape the design of DIY Diabetes Management, a website created by doctors at Northwestern’s medical school to take the stress and ambiguity out of learning diabetes survival skills.

Dissertation: "Communitarian Learning: Fostering Interdependence to Teach Design Skills in Collective Action." Chair: Matt Easterday

Sugat DabholkarSugat Dabholkar, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern, designs learning environments that make it possible for students to ‘do science.’ As part of the CT-STEM project, he demonstrated how computational learning environments can facilitate science learning and foster curiosity in children. He also worked with teachers to co-design science curricula that are enriched with such computational tools. His research examined how teachers' involvement in the co-design process influenced their pedagogical interactions in the classroom. “As a member of the academic community of people doing science and designing for science learners, we need to push boundaries and keep thinking and going beyond the settled ways of doing science and develop community-centered, co-design approaches for doing and teaching science,” he said. Dabholkar dedicated his dissertation to Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, his granduncle “whose presence in my life inspired me to pursue science and science education,” he wrote on Facebook.

Dissertation: “Restructurating Science Learning with Emergent Systems Microworld (ESM)-based Learning Environments.” Chair: Uri Wilensky

Ruben EchevarriaRuben Echevarria, a SESP postdoctoral fellow, focuses on the political and ethical dimensions of teaching and learning. He’s interested in studying pedagogy, tinkering environments, and mathematical practices to explore the interwoven relationships between care, learning, and identity as fundamental to developing humanizing experiences for educators and students.

Dissertation: “It's basically a program where you can just like be yourself and like learn how to master skills”: Politicized Caring in a Museum-Based Tinkering Program for High School Students." Co-chairs: Shirin Vossoughi and Miriam Sherin

Ava JacksonAva Jackson is the AACTE Holmes Postdoctoral Fellow at Boston University. She researches learning and identity development in critical pedagogical and disciplinary learning environments. She is a coauthor of “Embodied Pathways and Ethical Trails: Studying Learning in and through Relational Histories,” which received the 2020 paper of the year from the Journal of Learning Sciences. “I want to continue to focus on the role self-esteem/identity play in learning for students from low socioeconomic, diverse and underrepresented backgrounds,” she says. “How do they develop identities as learners and how are those identities supported?”

Dissertation: “Critical History Education: A Case-Study of Design, Learning, and Identity in a High School History Class.” Chair: Shirin Vossoughi

Kit Martin, assistant professor of computer science at Penn State's Center for Science and the Schools, worked at theKit Martin Center for Connected Learning and Computer Based Modeling (CCL) where he developed modeling and simulation tools for learning including The Ant Game. Focusing on Uri Wilensky’s NetLogo, the gold standard agent-based modelling environment for learners around the world, Martin developed a game that models ant systems and colonies. Martin, who grew up in Sudan, didn’t step foot in a formal classroom until 2004, when he attended Bard College. There he studied Arabic, computer science, Middle Eastern and African history, and wrote a thesis on the rise to power of five women who ruled the Ottoman Empire, and their vanishing from history because of their gender. While Northwestern in addition to his doctorate he was awarded the MPES fellowship, he also received a certificate from Kellogg in business management for scientists, and he also earned certificates in Cognitive Science and Education Sciences.

Dissertation: “Measuring Model-Based Learning of Complex Systems with Multiple Data Streams.” Chair: Uri Wilensky 

Julissa munizJulissa Muñiz, who researches educational disparities for incarcerated children, is a Provost’s Early Career Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work is deeply influenced by her experiences in prisons and juvenile facilities as a tutor, GED instructor, workshop facilitator, art instructor, facility monitor, and most recently as a college instructor. She was inspired by her students and inside co-teacher at San Quentin State Prison to continue working with incarcerated students with an emphasis on understanding youth experiences in confinement. She’s currently developing an interrelated strand of research focused on learning and development among migrant youth caged in immigration detention centers. Muñiz is a proud first-generation borderlands scholar from San Ysidro, California. In 2021 with the support of her community and former classmates, she founded the San Ysidro Rising Scholar Award, a college scholarship and mentorship program that supports first generation graduating seniors from her alma mater–San Ysidro High School.

Dissertation: "I Don't Think No Kid Should Be Here”: A Critical Ethnography on Identity Development, Teaching, & Learning in the Carceral Context.” Chairs: Shirin Vossoughi and Jim Spillane 

Abigail Stein, who broadly researches the relationship between policy and classroom teaching and school and districtAbigail Stein improvement, is a research analyst in the School of Education and Social Policy. At SESP, Stein works on the Preschool Through Elementary School Coherence (COHERE) study, where she collaborates with two diverse districts in California. Her research documents efforts to create policy alignment and continuity, and measures how these efforts influence students’ learning opportunities, experiences, and ultimately math proficiencies from preschool through second grade. Stein’s dissertation examined the relationship between instructional coaching in math and other instructional improvement levers in two school districts. She found that districts made different strategic choices when designing their instructional improvement system, such as the degree to which instructional resources were clear and detailed. She showed how these differences fundamentally shaped what instructional coaching looked like, including how coaches divided their time among various coaching tasks and the focus of their interactions with teachers. Her work contributes to the emerging literature on instructional coaching that has moved beyond “a coach is a coach is a coach” to a broader view of coaching that is defined by who they interact with, the resources they use, and the participation structures they engage in.

Dissertation: "Educational Infrastructure and Instructional Coaching: A Study of Coaching Practice in Two School Districts" Chair: Cynthia Coburn

jue_wuJue Wu: Wu received her master's in learning sciences at SESP and collected another one in statistics before earning her doctorate in learning sciences. She studies the role women-in-tech groups play in creating community for female STEM students. Wu was a research assistant at Kellogg and worked with Northwestern’s Searle Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning, on a National Science Foundation project designed to improve pathways to success for historically underrepresented minority doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty, in STEM disciplines.

Dissertation: "Examining Women-in-Computer-Science Groups as a Means for Diversifying Stem: A Cross-Level Analysis." Chair: David Uttal

Yanning YuYanning Yu studies how children and undergraduates learn math collaboratively through play, gestures, and embodiment. She examined a game-based curriculum for elementary school students to learn mathematics through playing an Asian board game—the game of Go, and explored how children develop spatial and math thinking along the way. She is broadly interested in STEM learning with technology and collaborative learning. Before starting at Northwestern, Yu got her bachelor’s degree in Engineering and the Learning Sciences from Smith College, where she developed and studied an engineering curriculum based on knowledge building theories and computer supported collaborated learning. During her time in graduate school, she was president in a campus organization serving international students by providing cultural support.

Dissertation: “Spatial Thinking and the Learning of Mathematics in the Game of Go” Chair: David Uttal

Human Development and Social PolicyAndrea Busby

Andrea Kinghorn Busby, assistant professor in the Department of Family Life at Brigham Young University, studies how children's development is related to their social settings. Her studies look at things like how children experience changes in the emotional environment from home to school settings, how community factors such as local violence relate to the teaching quality children receive, and how broader social and political factors relate to how parents teach their children about economic inequality in America.

Dissertation: "Caregiving across Contexts: Exploring Children’s Development and Caregiving at the Intersection of Home, School, and Neighborhood Settings” Chair: Terri Sabol.

OliviaOlivia Healy Healy is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University with School of Education and Social Policy alumna Rachel Dunifon (PhD99), the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology. Healy researches the impact of childbirth and access to maternity leave on mothers’ and fathers’ job performance. Her work also looks at intended and unintended consequences of government efforts to expand access to high-quality early care and education programs through increased public options and accountability systems.

Dissertation: “Child and Family Policy in the 21st Century: A Focus on Early Childhood Education and Parental Work” Chair: Jon Guryan

courtenay kesslerCourtenay Kessler is a researcher for Insight Policy Research. A first-generation college student, Kessler worked in Professor Terri Sabol’s Development Early Education and Policy (DEEP) Lab and studied how early childhood environments influence health and education. Prior to Northwestern, she was a researcher at the Center for Urban Population Health. She completed her master’s degree at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the department of society, human development, and health. “Courtenay is an innovative scholar who conducts research at the intersection of developmental psychology, economics, education, and public health,” said Sabol, assistant professor of human development and social policy. “She developed a highly interdisciplinary, policy relevant, and scientifically rigorous dissertation that explored how early life experiences influence health and education.”

Dissertation: Social-Ecological Implications of Early Life Adversity for Health and Academic Performance.” Chair: Terri Sabol

Heather McCamblyHeather McCambly is assistant professor of critical higher education policy at the University of Pittsburgh. The 2019 winner of Northwestern’s Presidential Fellowship, the University’s most prestigious award for graduate students, she researches the forces behind educational inequalities in higher education. “As a first-generation college student, a community college graduate, and a multi-ethnic Latina, I am personally invested in generating clearer explanations for how, despite years of equity interventions, students of color continue to have limited access to life-affirming postsecondary experiences,” she says.

Dissertation: "Change Agents or Same Agents?: Grantmakers and Racialization in U.S. Higher Education Policy." Chair: Jeannette Colyvas

lynn meissnerLynn Meissner’s research focuses on the transition from high school to postsecondary education and the workforce, especially the role of Career and Technical Education in comprehensive public high schools. She is broadly interested in program and policy implementation and evaluation and strengthening channels of communication between academic and non-academic audiences. Lynn grew up in Yonkers, New York, got her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California-Santa Cruz, and served as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Kansas City, MO before starting at Northwestern. During her time in graduate school she was involved in various community-building organizations within Northwestern, in her neighborhood of Rogers Park, and in the broader Chicago community.  

Dissertation: "Career and Technical Education (CTE) in the 21st Century: Do Different Fields of CTE Reduce, Reproduce, or Exacerbate Socioeconomic Inequality?” Chair: Jim Rosenbaum
By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 3/10/22