In November, the James S. McDonnell Foundation, a private philanthropic institute in St. Louis, awarded a six-year, $4 million grant to Associate Professor Natalie Bolton and co-principal investigators in the College of Education to establish the St. Louis Translational Fellowships in Education.
The program will focus on embedding the science of learning best practices in daily K-12 instruction and the subsequent impact on educators and students. The majority of the funds will go toward hiring up to 18 full-time postdoctoral fellows for two-year “inquiry cycles” over a six-year period. Prospective fellows must have a doctorate in education, learning science or psychology.
Bolton, who is a member of the Department of Educator Preparation and Leadership, will serve as the principal investigator on the project along with co-principal investigators Associate Teaching Professor Phyllis Balcerzak and Director of Project and Program Operations, Professional Learning and Innovation Chanua Ross. Additionally, Professor Cody Ding; Orthwein Endowed Professor for Lifelong Learning in the Sciences Keith Miller; Assistant Professor Megan Rooney-Kron; Executive Director of UMSL Charter Schools Susan Marino; and UMSL Charter Schools Support Specialist Thurma DeLoach will support implementing the program.
They will administer the program, provide mentorship and place fellows in UMSL Charter Schools, which include six public charter elementary, middle, and K-8 schools, as well as K-12 public schools in the university’s Studio School program to work with administrators and teachers.
“It’s extremely exciting not only for UMSL and the College of Education, but also for our work with UMSL Charter Schools and the benefits that we anticipate students and educators will receive,” Bolton said.
College of Education Dean Ann Taylor said the college is grateful to accept the award and to work with such a prestigious local institution. The James S. McDonnell Foundation was established in 1950 by the eponymous aerospace pioneer to improve quality of life by contributing to the generation of new knowledge.
“Their partnership will allow us to shape a vision for the inaugural St. Louis Translational Fellowships in Education program in collaboration with our public schools,” Taylor said. “College of Education faculty and staff are already working across the region as strong partners for our P-12 colleagues, and this grant allows us to further that work with another ground-breaking project, where critical research-based thinking is brought together with the complex world of school practice. That is the translational work we believe in. It is hard work, but these are exciting times as we all learn together with diversity, equity and excellence as our goals.”
Bolton said the application for the grant caught the team’s attention because of the College of Education’s existing work on science of learning initiatives with Deans for Impact. Through that partnership, the college has intentionally built scientific learning content across its teacher preparation coursework.
The science of learning is an approach to education pedagogy that draws on cognitive psychology research to better understand how students learn.
“There are some foundational instructional practices that over time have shown this is what makes a difference for learners to retain content,” Bolton said. “For instance, tapping and making connections to prior knowledge and using examples and non-examples to really make sure an individual understands content deeply.
“If you are teaching students new vocabulary or a new concept, you would try to tie in varied examples and non-examples and let students compare those to check their knowledge and deepen their understanding of the topic. Also, those practices should help students retain the content in long-term memory.”
The primary aim of the fellows during their two-year appointments will be to ensure that local schools are adhering to those best practices. Additionally, fellows will receive training from the Thinking Collaborative, a third party, related to instructional coaching and facilitation skills in the classroom with teachers and outside the classroom with administrators.
Bolton noted that the science of learning content is typically covered in educational psychology courses, which are required for teacher certification. However, not every teacher preparation program integrates this content intentionally across coursework like UMSL. She added that sometimes schools can become initiative-focused and lose sight of cognitive psychology principles.
“That’s what we really hope that the fellows will be able to help guide and reinforce,” Bolton said. “Schools might be using a variety of curricula, but we will make sure that core learning science principles are integrated with those curricula and monitored.”
Research will be another key aspect of the program. Fellows will work with their mentors in the College of Education and faculty members at local schools to identify a problem of practice related to enhancing the science of learning. They will then study the impact on teacher knowledge and content gains for K-12 students and collect data, which will be synthesized and communicated visually.
The program will also investigate what the fellows gain by participating. Bolton said she expects that to include enhanced personal knowledge in several areas, including application of cognitive psychology, coaching skills, data acquisition and visualization and day-to-day K-12 public school operations and policies.
The bulk of the funding will go toward hiring the fellows as full-time College of Education employees, but smaller portions will also go toward supporting faculty release time to work on the grant and to the Thinking Collaborative that will provide training on instructional coaching.
Bolton and her co-principal investigators will begin recruiting fellows this spring, with a program start date of Aug. 1. Candidates for the fellowship must have received an EdD or PhD within the last three years in education, psychology, or learning sciences.
The UMSL team plans to start the search close to home.
“The College of Education has a very large EdD program, so our recruitment strategy is first to recruit from our graduates within the last three years, EdD or PhD, as well as from UMSL Psychology doctoral graduates,” Bolton said. “That in itself is a very large pool of individuals. Then we will recruit from the UMSL charter schools, any of those individuals who recently received their doctorate. We would then broaden our search if needed. We would reach out to the St. Louis region as a whole, the state, and then nationwide as well.”