Science Museum Education and Research Specialist
Laura M. W. Martin, PhD
Arizona Science Center
In the field of education, there is a great need for scientific research to inform practice. In fact, educational leaders are calling for dialogue and collaborative projects between researchers and educators on a scale not previously seen. This is true in the areas of academic achievement, student needs, educational system analysis, curriculum design, school reform, staff development and policy. Psychological research has a decisive role to play in these arenas.
My interests and training have allowed me to bridge research and practice, and I have been able to develop my own rather unique career path that spans the two. I started out as a teacher of young children, with a master's degree from Bank Street College of Education. I had been a history major in college and was very attracted to the idea of social reform. Bank Street represents a progressive, humanistic approach to learning that, compared with many teacher training programs I've come to know, stresses early interpersonal dynamics, principles of child development and experiences with basic materials as the foundation of good education. That preparation encouraged me to work with others to develop models of alternative schools and to continue to study a variety of theories (e.g., those of Dewey, Piaget, Freire, Neill and Kohl).
After several years in classrooms, I knew I wanted to learn more about how children think, so I applied to graduate school in child development. The development lab I joined was part of a degree program in experimental psychology. Students at the University of California, San Diego, were required to get a general education in psychology, while doing research projects in behavioral, cognitive, physiological, social or vision labs. Those requirements were ultimately very important. Studying with top researchers and learning cutting-edge research, I gained a critical sense and a sense of method that has served me well.
It helped, too, that the particular lab I joined was an exceptional one. The Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition is cross-disciplinary, not just across areas of psychology, but across sociology, anthropology, linguistics and more. There, my interests in how things happen in real-world settings developed further. Historical and practical concerns around learning and development were addressed simultaneously with the most complex theories of learning. Learning contexts in particular were considered to be an understudied area accounting for individual differences in cognitive performance.
When I began life as a professional researcher, I tackled topics in learning and learning tools, and I returned to Bank Street College, to its Center for Children and Technology. In the context of applied collaborative projects (school systems with researchers), both evaluation and basic research were possible. I then worked on a basic research project for the National Center for Research in Vocational Education on adults' use of new technologies for learning in factories. Finally, I looped back to the area of children's informal learning by joining the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) as research director and vice president of Production Research. CTW's projects analyzed media in homes, after school settings, summer programs, preschools, as well as in schools. At CTW, informal educational settings are considered critical to much of the learning experience.
Interesting opportunities are always presenting themselves to me now. I've had job offers from a network, a software developer, a nonprofit, the government and colleges. The opportunity I decided to pursue took me to the world of science and technology centers, which seemed an ideal match for my interests. I was invited to help build a new center in Arizona as director of education and research. At the center, I help designers conceptualize exhibits, and I research whether the designs are communicating effectively. I organize programs, classes and resources that are suited to community needs. I initiate basic research projects on informal learning. As I do these things, I rely on grounded approaches and experimental results from the fields of cognitive and sociocultural psychology and child development. I have helped, too, to cross-fertilize the museum and research communities by organizing symposia and presentations for each.
Although a traditional laboratory or academic career hasn't been for me, I have been able to participate in meaningful social change and do valid, interesting work. I encourage others to think about such paths because I know the need is out there. Large school districts, curriculum publishers and media designers, departments of education, various institutions of learning including informal ones, and others need well-prepared psychologists to help them make a difference.
(Originally published in the May/June 1996 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)