Undergrad students gain a new perspective on education research

Originally published on UAlberta News.

Two undergraduate Elementary Education students were recipients of the University of Alberta’s undergraduate summer research awards, providing them with chance to work alongside professors in their fields for four months.

Both Marcus DeWitt and Stephanie Shannon received the Roger S. Smith Undergraduate Student Research Award, enabling them to gain valuable experience conducting academic research while working with faculty members on their projects.

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Working with math games: Stephanie Shannon

Stephanie Shannon, a second-year Education after-degree student, worked with Janelle McFeetors on a research project that uses games to help teach elementary school students learn math. The project showed Shannon that math learning experiences don’t need to be limited to the classic worksheets that many students dread.

“Kids can learn from hands-on experience or simple games,” says Shannon. “The games approach goes a lot deeper that you think it would. In the future, I would definitely incorporate games into the math-learning experience in my classroom.

Shannon started the summer by going out into a grade 4 and 5 split class, working with the students while they were playing the games. Her insights into the students’ changing mindset caught McFeetor’s attention.

“After we completed a classroom intervention and conducting interviews with grade 4 and 5 students, she pointed out how the students’ productive disposition grew as they were learning,” says McFeetors.

“What was interesting is this coincided with professional articles I had recently read identifying this as an under-developed idea in mathematics education.”

Later in the summer, Shannon moved into data analysis and transcribing notes. In the final month, Shannon tried her hand at a new skill– website design for learnmathwithgames.com. Not only did the project help Shannon develop new skills and ideas for her to use in her own future classrooms, and open her mind to possibility of doing more academic research in the future.

“This experience was  much different than what I experienced when doing research in my first degree, she says.

“With this project, I went to the classroom and met students. You get to have that personal connection with them, but you’re still doing research. It’s a great feeling to know that they aren’t just subjects. You actually get to know them and see how they have evolved.”

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Constructing timelines: Marcus DeWitt

Fourth-year Education student Marcus DeWitt spent the summer working with Lindsay Gibson on a project that saw grade 11 students creating interactive timelines about Canada’s history using flash cards. DeWitt applied for the research assistantship in hopes the project would give him an idea of what future opportunities in academia might look like.

“I’ve considered going onto do graduate work after I’m done my undergrad and I thought this would be a good introduction while giving me good experience,” says DeWitt.

“I’ve gotten to see data collection first hand– how you’d analyze, interpret and record it. It’s a pretty big part of the research-aspect of graduate work.”

On top of seeing how data collection works in an research project, DeWitt also learned more about students’ perceptions about Canadian history and how that impacts their engagement with the curriculum.

“At first it catches you off-guard, but after hearing 30 grade 11 students say the same type of thing, you realize the misconceptions they might have on certain aspects and topics,” explains DeWitt.

“You can definitely tell if the kids were on that day when you listen to the audio recordings. If it’s an issue that hits close to home, it’ll spark a ten minute conversation.”

Throughout the project DeWitt put his keen attention to detail to work, impressing Gibson.

“He identified key deductive codes from the interviews which has been very helpful in the data analysis process,” said Gibson. “His insights into the progression of students’ thinking as the study developed were very beneficial and have helped me develop next steps for this pilot project.”

Seeing the project’s gamification of Canadian history and how students engaged with it has influenced how DeWitt plans to engage his students.

“I’ve been thinking about Dr. Gibson’s approach to this project and I think it’s a great idea how he took a topic that a lot of kids might think is boring and made it into a challenge of sorts and make it fun,” says DeWitt. “It’s definitely something I’d look into doing in my classroom in the future.”


The Roger S. Smith Award is open to continuing undergraduate students. Information on how to apply can be found through the Registrar’s Office.

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Secondary Education welcomes new Social Studies professor

Originally published on UAlberta News

From PhD student to faculty member, Cathryn van Kessel continues her research into teaching tough topics to students.

From PhD student to faculty member, Cathryn van Kessel continues her research into teaching tough topics to students.

Understanding and conceptualizing evil when learning about horrific events like genocide and war is a topic new Secondary Education faculty member Cathryn van Kessel has wrestled with since she discovered the extent of her family’s role in the Dutch Resistance during World War II.

“My grandmother’s family had resistance fighters, including the man who became my grandfather, in the basement or their barn when occupying Nazi troops would stop at their house while on their rounds,” explained van Kessel.

“I can’t imagine what it is like to make that decision. No matter what you choose to do, you’re putting your family at risk.”

The perception that youth have of the dark chapters of human history is something that van Kessel started exploring academically when she was a high school teacher covering “really disheartening things” such as the Holocaust and the Holodomor. This experience forced her to re-evaluate how she taught these topics.

“I wanted to teach for social justice and about these horrible events in history so we don’t repeat them,” she said.

“I wanted to make them feel, and not just hear cold statistics, so I’d show them things like the original footage from Auschwitz, thinking I was doing a great job. Instead I was destroying any hope they had for the future.”

Rather than repeating the same teaching method for future students, van Kessel started looking into other ways to present the heavy material and learning more about students’ conceptualization of evil.

“I was concerned about how we teach genocide, but at the heart of it, I was more interested in the idea of evil and how that can either shut down or open up thinking.”

As a PhD student, van Kessel kept busy working on this research, even presenting it in the UAlberta Three Minute Thesis competition. As a faculty member she plans to continue researching into youth’s perception of evil in social studies curriculum by collaborating with colleagues who focus on terror management theory, wisdom traditions, world views and bringing it to an educational perspective.

Transitioning from graduate student to faculty member

One of the unique parts of van Kessel’s transition from graduate student to faculty member is that she made the switch at the same institution and in the same department.  She considers herself lucky to have the opportunity to remain at UAlberta and continue working with those who supported her as a graduate student.

“I keep pinching myself to make sure it’s real,” she joked.

“I just want to make sure I’m making everyone proud. It’s such an honour to be counted as their colleague and they mean a lot to me already.”

One change in particular that van Kessel is excited for is the opportunity to pay it forward to the graduate students she will work with in the future.

“It’s fun for me to think of mentoring people through the process that is still so fresh in my mind,” van Kessel said.

“I think back to when I started my doctoral degree and all the skills I built. I hope I can give them all the great experiences I had when I was mentored by other people in the department.”

Mentoring future educators isn’t new to van Kessel, however. When she was a graduate student, she transitioned from teaching high school students into educating their future teachers. Something that always surprised van Kessel’s students is her use of diverse genres of music in the classroom.

“I’ll use metal and punk, but I’ll also use really sweet, gentle and melodic stuff like The Weepies. At the end of the semester I always get asked  ‘What do you actually listen to? Is it Public Enemy? Is it Rage Against the Machine? Is it The Weepies?’”

Still, educating the next generation of social studies teachers is a task van Kessel does not take lightly.

“In some ways it is more high stakes since you have a bigger ripple which can either be a really nice thing, or a really horrifying thing depending on how it goes, but I love it,” she said.

“It’s exciting to hear how these future teachers are wrestling with the these tough topics, and telling them that it’s okay for them to be grappling with those things and how they might bring that into the classroom.”