College of Education > News and Publications > 2017: 10-12 news > McDonald to convene Learning Sciences Initiative

McDonald to convene Learning Sciences Initiative

Scott McDonald, associate professor of science education and director of the Krause Innovation Studio in the Penn State College of Education, has been named convener of the College's Learning Sciences Initiative.

Scott McDonald, associate professor of science education and director of the Krause Innovation Studio in the Penn State College of Education, has been named convener of the College's Learning Sciences Initiative. 

The initiative's short-term goal is to coordinate and successfully conduct a cluster hire of four new faculty with scholarly interests in the Learning Sciences and the science of learning. The longer-term goal is to begin engaging College of Education faculty, including the new hires, in formative discussions addressing how to constitute the research agendas and academic graduate programs that would shape the foundation for a Learning Sciences Center that will be connected with additional parts of the University. 

The Learning Sciences is an area of scholarship that focuses on how learning happens in a variety of learning contexts – in classrooms, online, museums, clubs, the workplace and many other formal and informal locations. A significant strand of research in this area tends to focus on the role of design and design principles in education, including educational interventions, curricula, spaces and exhibits, or technologies.

The Learning Sciences is an area of scholarship that focuses on how learning happens in a variety of learning contexts – in classrooms, online, museums, clubs, the workplace, and many other formal and informal locations. A significant strand of research in this area tends to focus on the role of design and design principles in education, including educational interventions, curricula, spaces and exhibits, or technologies.

"The Learning Sciences also tends to value interdisciplinary approaches to researching these problems, as multiple perspectives on complex problems is the best way to get a handle on the full complexity of learning in the wild," said McDonald.

"We will look to the initiative to develop curricular offerings at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in the Learning Sciences and also to facilitate the funding of collaborative research projects designed to advance scholarship in the Learning Sciences," said David H. Monk, dean of the College of Education. "Scott has strong connections to aspects of the Learning Sciences, and also the administrative skills needed for building collaborative programs. Under his leadership, I see this initiative growing into a formal Learning Sciences Center at Penn State that will be a national leader in Learning Sciences scholarship and teaching."

McDonald will be working closely with Richard Duschl, the Kenneth B. Waterbury chaired professor in secondary education. Duschl is planning the next Waterbury Summit to facilitate scholarly conversations around the research agendas for a Learning Sciences Center at Penn State.  The summit will bring national and international thought leaders together with Penn State faculty for a multi-day conversational conference.

"When I came here and accepted the Waterbury Chair, one of my agendas was to focus on building up the Learning Sciences and coupling that to scholarship in science studies (history, philosophy and sociology of science)," Duschl said. Now, he said, the Learning Sciences agenda is part of the larger strategic plan for the University. 

"It plays a complementary role to what's happening in the Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL) and with Teaching & Learning with Technology at Penn State," Duschl said. The Learning Sciences also have the potential to connect with the World Campus because of the potential for researching the design of courses, the design of those learning experiences. In general, transforming education initiatives at Penn State all are packaged in a way that present wonderful opportunities for us to do whole new lines of research with the faculty here in collaboration with faculty elsewhere."

There already is much work going on in the College of Education, both in the classroom and through research directly related to the Learning Sciences. The purpose of the Learning Sciences Initiative is to create an administrative and organizational structure that will build on the current strengths and develop relationships and infrastructure to support a collaborative and interdisciplinary group of faculty and graduate students with a shared set of interests around the science of learning.

"My role is to work with interested faculty across the College and beyond to define what Learning Sciences looks like here at Penn State, and what kinds of structures we want to try and develop to support students and faculty who are interested in engaging in Learning Science-focused research"
– Scott McDonald

"My role is to work with interested faculty across the College and beyond to define what Learning Sciences looks like here at Penn State, and what kinds of structures we want to try and develop to support students and faculty who are interested in engaging in Learning Science-focused research," McDonald said.

"This will likely mean convening groups of faculty both from within the College of Education and from other colleges across Penn State, to talk through issues and concerns, and to facilitate conversations that can clarify what the faculty hopes to see come out of the initiative," he said. 

Educational scholarship increasingly has become more of a "big science" model, with multiple faculty members with different backgrounds and expertise working together in a research group using a team approach to tackle larger-scale problems.

"Having a strong community of scholars at Penn State that are doing this kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary work will provide opportunities for our students to engage in scholarship with a much more diverse set of faculty; learn about working in collegial ways with other researchers on a team; and be inside the process of seeking external funding. These are all skills that graduate students need to have to be successful faculty members," McDonald said.

McDonald plans to begin his work with the initiative first by building relationships and an understanding among colleagues of the goals of the initiative.

"Beginning steps include discussions of a Learning Science structure for graduate students – either a joint program or some other way to allow students to be recognized as doing work in the Learning Sciences. We will also look to set up some kind of colloquium for interested faculty where we can begin to share our work across departments so we can build connections that will be fundamental to making the initiative work," McDonald said.

"This is an exciting opportunity to extend Penn State's leadership role into a powerful area of educational scholarship, and to provide our students with opportunities to expand their expertise in ways that are professionally productive," he said. "I'm looking forward to diving in and getting to work."

By Annemarie Mountz (October 2017)