Emory Report
February 4, 2008
Volume 60, Number 18

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February 4, 2008
Engineering the skills to teach: Educational studies lecturer is classroom problem-solver

By Alison Amoroso

What is a woman who has earned a patent for technology to purify solar cell silicon and two degrees in chemical engineering doing teaching in the Division of Educational Studies (DES)?

“I’m bringing all my experiences in science, engineering and technology alive for my students,” says Karen Falkenberg, who also is director for undergraduate education programs for the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) and an advisory board member for the Gwinnett School for Science, Math and Technology.

“We all need to understand technology, whether we’re a person buying a car or a congressional representative voting on a defense bill,” says Falkenberg. “We live in a technological world and the issues we are currently faced with require an ability to understand technology, science and mathematics and how they impact our lives and our planet,” she says of the importance of teaching these subjects.

Falkenberg didn’t start out wanting to be a teacher. She recalls thinking it would be tough for two engineers to raise a family. Looking for a career with different hours, she started knocking on school doors and learning quickly that just because one knows the subject matter does not mean one is invited to teach it.

“Some people are predisposed to be good teachers, but there is always a need to be skilled in teaching and understand how people learn,” says Falkenberg, who was first hired at a private school in Pittsburgh and later earned a Ph.D. in educational studies at Emory in 2002. “We now know a great deal from cognitive science about the factors that enhance a person’s learning and teachers need to receive training in this,” she says.

As a high school science and math teacher, Falkenberg took a summer course at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering that taught teachers how to use engineering problem solving in their classrooms. The following summer she came back as a master teacher and was later hired to direct the program. She did this for five years, packing up for a few weeks each summer to live at the college, until coming to Emory in 1995.

Falkenberg joined Emory School of Medicine as a program manager for Elementary Science Education Partners (ESEP), a National Science Foundation-funded program to enhance science education in the Atlanta Public Schools. When she finished her doctorate in the DES — in which she focused on creativity and innovation — she began teaching at Emory and doing community outreach. Last January, she was also asked to join the CBN.

Falkenberg’s training as an engineer positions her well to fulfill one of the goals of the DES: preparing people to teach or do educational research in urban settings. “Engineers try to optimize circumstances and solve problems,” she says.

“It’s important that we are in public urban schools doing real, relevant work, that we are not insular. I teach students how to be good stewards in the community and how to be active partners in urban education,” says Falkenberg. Her goal is to teach students to collaborate and recognize the strengths that all people bring to the education setting.

Falkenberg teaches four theory-practice learning courses, one of which is called “Introduction to Teaching for Math and Science Majors.” Students spend six hours a week at a local middle or high school partnered with a teacher and two hours a week in a seminar on campus with Falkenberg. “Usually my students end up learning more than the students they teach,” she says. She also teaches the two ESEP courses in which students work in local urban elementary schools.

Another way Falkenberg solves problems is by directing the Challenge & Champions program, a summer camp for metro Atlanta middle school students on the Clairmont Campus. One-third of the youth who attend are from local homeless shelters, so Falkenberg devotes some energy to fundraising. Challenge & Champions is also an immersion experience for graduate Master of Arts in Teaching students, who assist experienced local teachers with inter-disciplinary, multicultural courses in language arts, science, math and social studies.

“Emory allows me flexibility to develop partnerships and the freedom to innovate. I’m still using my engineering skills, just with a different focus,” says Falkenberg, who isn’t all about technology. She is also a hiker, loves to cook, ride her tandem bike with her husband, and even earned a black belt in martial arts in her spare time.