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Northwestern Learning Sciences PhD Application (Statement of Purpose)

(For more on my decision to apply to Northwestern’s Learning Science program and the resulting decisions, please see College Graduation)

Please explain your immediate and long term research and occupational goals with respect to your intended field of study. Please provide details regarding your particular areas of academic interest.

My goal is to design learning environments that bridge formal and informal learning for STEM education, incorporating lessons on motivation and leadership. I have experimented with experiential education through the new Drexel Smart House (DSH) program. Participation in the LS community will provide the formal pedagogical roots and training in research methodology necessary to continue my work. (Indeed, my work can be traced to an earlier interest in establishing a school, dating to my study of Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences at age 12.)

My engineering background has prepared me for such a career. I have found research fascinating since high school, where I designed a routing protocol for a DoD solicitation, and through my undergraduate capstone project, where I placed in the computer science department competition. My two electrical engineering degrees have provided me first-hand experience with the current state of STEM education. (The decision to pursue a PhD resulted from discussions of STEM pedagogy with, and encouragement from, the Dean of Engineering.) My graduate concentration in systems and control theory provides a rigorous foundation for exploring the overlap between development psychology (understanding), transformational leadership (process), and holistic curricula for STEM education (content) from a systems perspective.

DSH was founded by an interdisciplinary group of honors college students. I joined shortly thereafter to help develop a living, learning laboratory. Initially designing and prototyping a multitouch collaborative platform, I soon found myself administering the overall research program, then leading the whole program and gaining the support of top administrators.

Under my “second generation” leadership, the program is developing as an experiential education platform: DSH provides members a rich, real-world educational experience in developing improvements to the urban living experience. My own learning in DSH has been significant. I have earned LEED AP certification, organized community and industry partnerships, and helped write research proposals, such as the EPA-funded lightweight green roof system. As part of an interdisciplinary team, I have designed an architectural plan, developed a strategic business plan, and began renovating an abandoned, historic home (to be completed in 2012).

The most difficult challenge I faced was creating a learning environment to inspire and develop other students. The first task was to undo the way many students approach education. When confronted with a new challenge, students typically await further instruction. This lack of creative thinking and intrinsic motivation to learn are indicative of the broader problems in education. The standard classroom has conditioned students as passive learners, which drove us to remake their learning process.

To this end, I designed a learning organization, incorporating factors of motivation into an experimental, fail-fast culture. For example, rather than defining responsibilities for each position, job descriptions were defined by expected outcomes, in terms of their contribution to the DSH vision. In this way, we provide members autonomy to select and master their skills and responsibilities.

We see DSH as a unique vehicle for engaging students with real-world interdisciplinary challenges, and empowering them to take ownership of their education. As a technology incubator, DSH members support other students – taking ideas from concept through prototyping, securing external funds, development, and commercialization. In turn, these students become members, mentoring other students with their research ideas. As evidence of this model’s viability, DSH student members have received over $200,000 in research grants, secured two provisional patents, established two spinoff companies, and been featured in national press, such as Creative Outlook, United Airlines’ in-flight magazine, and Forbes (where I was quoted).

This work is practical in nature, but rich for study. In collaboration with library science scholars, preliminary work on information literacy development for freshman engineering students was presented to the American Society of Engineering Education. I have served as a panelist for the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Sciences and Technology (NCSSSMST) and spoken on student-driven education at an NCSSSMST school. We have worked to gain the support of university administration and faculty, showing DSH as a viable and valuable model as they look to create an institute to study innovations in teaching and learning.

I want to learn more about the theories underlying these practical experiences. I believe my background and practice-based experiments in education will make me an asset to the LS community, and hope the admissions committee finds my interest in bridging informal and formal learning for STEM education of benefit to the program.

Posted in Education.

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  1. Teacher Transition: Instructor to Facilitator | Cody A. Ray linked to this post on May 1, 2011

    […] the underlying topic of my PhD application to Northwestern’s Learning Science program was designing learning environments. This general idea was recently supported in researching intelligent tutors for my class on […]

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