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.


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