News and notes in the Fall 2017 Learning Connections

News and Notes

UW-Madison sixth in World University Rankings for education degrees

For the first time, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings rated the globe’s leading universities for acquiring an education degree, and UW–Madison is among the very best at No. 6.

World University Rankings graphicAccording to an Oct. 4 news release accompanying the rankings: “An education degree can open the doors to a career working and teaching in schools as well as carrying out research into how we learn. Times Higher Education has ranked the 100 best universities for education degrees for the first time this year to help you decide on the best university for you.” The only institutions ranked higher than UW–Madison are: Stanford University, Harvard University, the University of Oxford (United Kingdom), the University of Hong Kong and the University of California, Berkeley.

“It’s an honor to see UW–Madison being recognized by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings as one of the very best places across the globe to pursue an education degree,” says School of Education Dean Diana Hess, the Karen A. Falk Distinguished Chair of Education. “We realize these ratings are just one measure but I attribute this recognition to talented and driven faculty and staff who excel as both first-class educators and world-class researchers.”

Rankings were based on measures in teaching (the learning environment), research (volume, income and reputation), citations (research influence), international outlook (staff, students and research) and industry income (innovation).

Turner examines districts’ attempts to sell diversity

Erica Turner recently studied the marketing practices of school districts that emphasize the “racial diversity” of their students and schools in an effort to attract new families.

Erica Turner
Her findings were issued in a report titled, “Marketing Diversity: Selling School Districts in a Racialized Marketplace,” published in October by the online Journal of Education Policy.

Turner’s report explains that in order to target upper- and middle-class white families, some school district leaders “draw on discourses of global cosmopolitanism, and commodify racial diversity as a competitive advantage for upper- and middle-class White families that leaders believe do not see inherent value in students of color.”

School districts’ attempts to sell diversity in order to attract upper- and middle-class white families sometimes only present diversity as an abstract notion, without acknowledging that all students could gain value from interracial and intercultural interactions, writes Turner, an assistant professor with the Department of Educational Policy Studies.

"Public schools serve students across ethnic, racial, linguistic, gender, and class lines, but this study asks scholars and practitioners to consider more deeply what it means to value diversity and what relationship diversity has with equity in education, particularly in increasingly marketized educational environments," Turner says.

Vlach, Lupyan receive NIH grant to study effects of early language experiences

UW–Madison’s Haley Vlach and Gary Lupyan in September received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct an innovative and interdisciplinary research project that will examine key questions of how early language experience shapes later cognitive and academic outcomes.

Haley Vlach
Vlach is an assistant professor with the School of Education’s No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology and the director of the Learning, Cognition and Development (LCD) Lab. Lupyan is an associate professor with the Department of Psychology.

The research project will explore whether differences in children’s early vocabularies cause differences in cognitive and academic outcomes, as well as whether early knowledge of certain words helps to speed up later linguistic and cognitive development.

A key goal is to establish whether there is a causal link between early language knowledge and later cognitive and academic outcomes. “Finding this causal link would mean that poorer language skills in children lead not only to greater difficulties in communicating, but also difficulties with reasoning and certain types of learning,” says Lupyan.

As part of the grant, Vlach and Lupyan will develop an app to help parents track their children’s language development. Such an app also has long-term potential to be used for educational interventions. Vlach describes the project as “high-risk, high-reward,” as well as far-reaching. “I look forward to bridging neuroscience, linguistics, psychology and education to discover the words that drive cognitive and academic success,” says Vlach.

Field Day Lab inspires learning with interactive media

Teachers from across Wisconsin eagerly join a fellowship wait list to learn how to create digital educational games that engage students and boost learning.

Field Day Lab quoteThese fellowships for K–12 teachers, which include face-to-face, virtual and hands-on learning, are available through the Field Day Lab, a digital media learning laboratory at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research within the School of Education.

This past summer, Field Day designers, engineers, researchers, teachers, artists and storytellers developed apps and games for educators and subject experts to help them engage their students in learning. The lab also develops large-scale distribution partnerships to ensure the games are played, allowing education researchers to study how students learn from digital media and to connect education research to the public.

Fellows design and construct subject-specific games that fit into their curriculum. They reflect on what they teach, read and discuss academic literature, collaborate with UW–Madison faculty and staff, and produce games that will help other teachers.

The Field Day Lab, led by David Gagnon, posts and maintains games players can access from anywhere. The “Yard Games,” for example, teach about the carbon cycle, water cycle and magnetism. Students have fun building a hot air balloon, learning how earthquakes develop and figuring out how nitrogen atoms move around the world. The molecular simulation “AtomTouch,” meanwhile, allows learners to explore principles of thermodynamics and molecular dynamics in a tactile, exploratory way.

Bringing researchers, content experts and teachers together is why the games succeed. Field Day Lab staff know teachers and students will use them. “We want the games to be designed with teachers so the games connect with the curriculum and fit with what the teachers want,” Gagnon says.

“The Field Day Lab Fellowship allows our school, our students and teachers like myself, to connect to the research of the University of Wisconsin–Madison,” says DeForest School District social studies teacher Beth Stofflet. “In our rural school district ... it’s often unclear how to link in to some of the learning opportunities on campus. The fellowship was a way for me and my students to be involved in new approaches to online interactive game design.”

— By Paul Baker, Wisconsin Center for Education Research

The Discussion Project aims to create engaging, welcoming classroom discussions

An engaging classroom discussion can be a beautiful thing — both a vital part of the learning process and a microcosm of the way we hope democracy functions.

Yet a high-quality discussion doesn’t just happen, says UW–Madison educational researcher Paula McAvoy. It needs structure and planning.

Paula McAvoy
“As faculty and academic staff members, we often try to improve writing skills in our classes but it is just as important to think of discussion as a skill that needs to be carefully developed,” McAvoy says.

The Discussion Project, a new professional development opportunity that kicked off during the fall semester at UW–Madison, addresses that goal. It is intended to help faculty and academic staff members from across campus both facilitate high-quality classroom discussions and prepare their students to participate in them, says McAvoy, the project’s director and primary instructor.

McAvoy, the program director for the Center for Ethics and Education, is developing and implementing The Discussion Project for the School of Education, in collaboration with Dean Diana Hess. The two co-authored the 2015 award-winning book, “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education.”

Hess says the primary purpose of The Discussion Project is to improve the quality of classroom discussions across the board, regardless of the discipline or whether a topic is considered sensitive, controversial or political. Yet the project, by its very nature, also should aid the university’s efforts at ensuring a welcoming and inclusive learning environment, she says.

The project itself will serve as an ongoing research effort, with participants helping McAvoy and Hess continuously fine-tune the curriculum so that other teaching institutions can benefit from what is learned. The program is being offered again during the 2018 spring semester.

— By Doug Erickson, University Communications

Around the school …

• UW–Madison’s Richard Halverson and Carolyn Kelley co-authored a book released this summer titled, “Mapping Leadership: The Tasks that Matter for Improving Teaching and Learning in Schools.” Drawing on 20 years of research in school effectiveness, this book outlines the tasks school leadership teams must focus on to improve teaching and learning. Halverson is a professor with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and co-director of the School of Education’s Wisconsin Collaborative Education Research Network. Kelley is a senior associate dean for academic programs in the School of Education, and the Jim and Georgia Thompson Distinguished Professor of Education with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

• In an effort to better connect her education research with people outside the realm of academia, Martina Rau this summer launched a video blog, or vlog, called, “Learning with Visuals.” Rau directs the Learning Representations and Technology Lab on campus, which studies how educational technologies can best support student learning with visuals. She is an assistant professor with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology. To check out the vlog, visit and search for “Learning with Visuals.”

Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, a faculty member with the Department of Educational Policy Studies, co-authored a paper published in the July issue of the Journal of College Student Development titled, “Encouraged or Weeded Out: Perspectives of Students of Color in the STEM Disciplines on Faculty Interactions.” The study examines the different experiences of students of color pursuing STEM degrees at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) versus predominantly white institutions (PWI). As the paper explains: “The findings suggest that students at PWIs felt as if faculty attempted to ‘weed them out’ of STEM disciplines, whereas students at HBCUs reported feeling encouraged and well socialized to enter STEM disciplines. There are important lessons from this data on how to better support Students of Color in STEM disciplines.”

• School of Education Dean Diana Hess took part in a national summit on Sept. 21 titled, “Democracy at a Crossroads: Our Nation’s Future Needs Innovative Civic Learning Now!” The event took place in Washington, D.C., and was designed to raise awareness about civic learning issues and showcase promising solutions to make the case that resources are needed to expand proven practices. Hess took part in a panel discussion moderated by Judy Woodruff, anchor of “PBS NewsHour.” Also participating in the panel were: Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University; and Daniel Stid, director of the Madison Initiative, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

• “At Play in the Cosmos,” an educational video game developed at UW–Madison, won the third annual Mashable + Games for Change People’s Choice Award. This new educational resource for introductory college astronomy received the highest number of online votes among the 11 games nominated in the category. Gear Learning, part of the School of Education’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research, developed the game in partnership with publisher W.W. Norton & Company.

• The School of Education’s Career Center and MERIT launched a podcast for students and alumni called “CareerCast.” This series of podcast episodes take listeners through the different phases of the job search — from finding job leads and preparing an elevator pitch, to evaluating offers and accepting a position. To learn more visit

• Teachers from seven rural school districts across Wisconsin — Barneveld, La Farge, Markesan, Mauston, Mercer, Phillips and River Valley — gathered on the UW–Madison campus this past spring for the inaugural “Teacher Speakout!” — a daylong event organized by the Wisconsin Center for Education Research during which rural educators shared their experiences with university researchers and with each other. More than 70 people attended, including education researchers, graduate students, local media and policymakers. Officials for the state’s U.S. senators and two state Assembly members, as well as representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Public Education Network and Rural Schools Alliance, attended and spoke one-on-one with teachers.

New faculty

New faculty membersThe School of Education welcomed five new faculty members to campus for the start of the 2017–18 academic year. The new hires are (left-to-right): Jordan Conwell, assistant professor, Department of Educational Policy Studies and Department of Sociology; Melinda Leko, associate professor, Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education; Natalie Zervou, assistant professor, Dance Department; Nicole Louie, assistant professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction; and Peter Wardrip, assistant professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction.




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