The Way We Learn: Lauren Barth-Cohen for the GCSC Seminar Series

We have all struggled with learning at some point in our education. Mathematics and the sciences can be especially daunting for many, while for others it just clicks. Yet it isn’t just about innate ability: the ways that we learn are essential to our educational success. As climate change bears down upon us, understanding this process can provide the key to preparing the leaders of tomorrow by making science and math education more comprehensible and engaging for students of all types.

Professor Lauren Barth-Cohen, Assistant Professor in Educational Psychology, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in Physics and Astronomy, will explore the cutting edge of science, mathematics and climate change education today, and where it can go from here, for her lecture, “Capturing Three-Dimensional Science Learning about Climate Change in Classrooms through Embodied Modeling,” for the Global Change and Sustainability Center‘s (GCSC) Seminar Series on Tuesday, January 15th.

Professor Barth-Cohen began her work in the sciences as a Physics major during her undergraduate education. While tutoring other students, Barth-Cohen explains, “I got interested in why some students had trouble understanding things that to me, as a physics major, seemed really straightforward and clear. I got curious why physics is hard for a lot of students.” This curiosity led her to graduate school at UC Berkeley, where she completed a Ph.D. in Science and Math Education focusing on student learning around complex systems in advanced physics.

From there, she took a post-doc position at the University of Maine where she began research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on how teachers learn, in an effort to help teachers find innovative ways to teach science and mathematics. After a stint at the University of Miami, Barth-Cohen took a position at the University of Utah where she works in both the College of Education and College of Science, offering a course on teaching science for undergraduate students, and a course exploring how people learn through various cognitive and sociocultural theories for graduate students.

In her seminar lecture, Barth-Cohen will talk about her ongoing research in many areas of science and math education and teacher learning. At the moment, Barth-Cohen is Principal Investigator (PI) on a current NSF grant with two faculty members from the College of Science. “What this grant is trying to do is bring together faculty who teach these different classes in Science and in Education and look at ways we can more explicitly connect our classes so there’s more coherence in terms of the classes, how they learn the content, and how they learn to teach the content. “

She will also discuss an innovative project she’s developing on students’ conceptual learning about cross-cutting concepts, the reasoning tools that scientists use to make sense of phenomena across topics. Currently she’s focused on the teaching of the physics of climate change through an embodied learning activity she calls “Energy Theater.”

As she describes it, Energy Theater is “halfway between improv theater and science class or, better yet, improv theater for science class, in which students act out a specific scientific scenario – in this case it’s the stasis of energy of the earth – and they act out this scenario in groups where they have to use their bodies to model the scenario.” Through this group process of interactive modelling, reflecting on the successes and failures of their model, and implementing improvements, the students learn about both the model and the concept. Barth-Cohen believes that this innovative approach to learning difficult subjects like the physics of climate change can make science education more accessible to all types of learners.

“There’s a fair bit of evidence that doing learning that is multimodal,” Barth-Cohen said, “that involves different ways of participating, and different means of engaging with the material, is beneficial for everyone.”

If you’re intrigued by this innovative work on how we learn and how we teach science, mathematics and climate change – or maybe just want to put on your own Energy Theater – come by ASB 210 on Tuesday, January 15th, for Professor Lauren Barth-Cohen’s GCSC Seminar Series lecture.


Originally posted on @theU on October 22, 2018.

By Paul Gabrielsen, science writer, University of Utah Communications

William Anderegg, an assistant professor of biology, has received one of 18 Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for his research on the effects of climate change and drought on forests.

Packard Fellows each receive a five-year, $875,000 grant to pursue research directions of their choosing. The Packard Foundation requires little paperwork connected to the grant, allowing fellows wide latitude to pursue risky and creative research ideas, dubbed “blue-sky thinking” by the foundation.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah William Anderegg, an assistant professor of biology, has received the Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering for his research on the effects of climate change and drought on forests.


“I felt honored, thrilled and surprised all at once,” Anderegg said. “I was pretty overwhelmed by the exciting news.”

Anderegg arrived at the U as an assistant professor in 2015 and studies how droughts affect forests and individual trees. Most recently, he and his colleagues published a study in Nature showing how tree species diversity in forests provides resilience to drought.

“The future of Earth’s forests hangs in the balance between the potential benefits of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and the stresses from climate change,” reads Anderegg’s research statement. “Anderegg’s lab focuses on understanding and predicting the future of Earth’s forests using a mix of experiments, field measurements, and mechanistic models.”

The Packard Foundation Fellowship

Every year, the Packard Foundation invites the presidents of 50 universities to nominate two professors each from their institutions. Nominations are reviewed by an advisory panel of distinguished scientists and engineers.

“Dr. Anderegg’s pioneering work elegantly combines field measurements with complex mathematical modeling to better predict the response of forests to drought,” said Denise Dearing, director of the U’s School of Biological Sciences. “He is the perfect fit for an award from the Packard Foundation especially in light of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stating that we have less than 12 years to take action to lessen the most serious effects of climate change.”

“The Packard Fellowships are among the nation’s largest nongovernmental fellowships, designed to allow maximum flexibility in how the funding is used,” according to the foundation. Packard Fellows have been awarded significant prizes, the Foundation notes, including Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry, MacArthur Fellowships and election to the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is really exciting and different because the funding is not tied to a specific, defined project, as is the case with most other grants,” Anderegg said. “The Packard Foundation really aims to fund individual scholars and to let these scientists pursue whatever creative or high-risk projects that they want to tackle.”

The creative latitude afforded by the fellowship embodies the sentiment of the late David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and the Packard Foundation:

“Take risks,” said Packard. “Ask big questions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not reaching far enough.”

A select group of U scholars

Anderegg joins four other Packard Fellows affiliated with the University of Utah.  The most recent awardee is June Round, an associate professor of pathology, who received her fellowship in 2013.

“I am truly grateful to be part of the Packard Foundation,” Round said. She studies how communities of microorganisms, called the microbiota, in the gut affect the health of the whole organism. The Packard Fellowship, she said, enabled her to identify ways to modify gut microbiomes and expand her research. “Because this Packard funding has such flexibility this allowed us to follow up on projects and get into new mouse models of disease that involve diabetes and obesity,” she said.

“This is not to say that there is no pressure,” said John Lupton, a former professor of physics at the U now at Regensburg University and a 2008 fellow. “When you are thrown in a pool with peers like [recent 2018 Nobel Laureate and 1989 fellow Frances] Arnold, you swim. Period.”

Lupton used his fellowship to invent a microscopy technique, a wagon wheel-shaped molecule to improve OLED efficiency and the straightest molecule ever made.

“We didn’t set out to solve a particular problem,” he said, “we went on a voyage to find new challenges. Physics is not only about solving problems, but also about finding them. Such ventures are often hard to do with conventional funding which requires roadmaps with little flexibility.”

Graeme Milton, distinguished professor of mathematics, received one of the first Packard Fellowships in 1988. He used the funding to bring colleagues from the soon-to-be-dissolved Soviet Union (including current U professor Andrej Cherkaev) to the United States to work with him for a year.

“It’s a major, major award,” Milton said. “It’s across all sciences. I think it’s a terrific achievement.”

Milton attended the first meeting of Packard alumni, held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California (“a spectacular place for a meeting,” he said) and has watched the meeting grow each year since then.

Brenda Bass, distinguished professor of biochemistry and 1991 Packard fellow, noted the importance of the annual meetings. “You meet scientists who have much more scientific diversity than the more specialized meetings we typically attend,” Bass said. “This fosters thinking in new directions.”

Bass said her Packard funding was very important to her lab’s early studies on RNA editing and double-stranded RNA binding proteins. “The freedom to use Packard funding to go down any path, regardless of its perceived outcome, is truly wonderful,” she said. “Such flexibility very often leads to discovery.”

Anderegg is still working out how he’d like to use the funding. “I want to use part of it to invest in some long-term climate change research that’s hard or nearly impossible to fund with traditional grants,” he said, “and also part of it for some near-term but high-risk projects to look at how forests will respond to climate change across the globe.”

Find the Packard Foundation’s release about the 2018 Packard Fellows here.