St. Olaf College | News

A teaching major with a twist

Elisabeth Sepulveda ’16 (left) and Sydney Mason ’16 expanded and enhanced their respective studies of education by developing individual majors through St. Olaf College’s Center for Integrative Studies.

Sydney Mason ’16 and Elisabeth Sepulveda ’16 both entered St. Olaf College knowing they wanted to pursue a career in teaching.

But both wanted to do more than major in education.

Sepulveda wanted to focus on the intersection of psychology and education. Mason wanted to combine her passions for language and working with children.

St. Olaf’s Center for Integrative Studies (CIS) allowed each to create a major that expanded and enhanced their respective studies of education.

Creativity and reading
Mason developed a CIS major called “English Language Learners in the Elementary Classroom” that she has paired with a concentration in educational studies. By the time she graduates she will also have an ELL license, which allows her to teach English language learners in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“I want students to be curious about learning. As a teacher and lifetime student, I realize how important it is to engage in learning. My goal for student teaching is to help students find a love for learning. So I teach with creativity, I teach with the purpose to engage students in discovery, I teach to prepare children for a lifetime of success,” she says.

An important part of Mason’s major has been experience outside the St. Olaf classroom. “It’s seeing reality as a teacher. It’s different from reading out of a textbook,” she says.

During the summer of 2013 she interned at St. Andrew Lutheran Early Learning to work with pre-kindergarten students. Mason says this internship confirmed that her vocation was to teach.

Currently, she is student teaching in several school districts. She will have experience teaching at all grade levels.

At the middle school level, she worked with ELL students individually to help them learn content-specific vocabulary. She also worked with ELL students as a group by teaching a literature course specifically designed to meet their language needs and increase their English-language literacy.

At the elementary level, she worked with kindergarten, first, and third grade ELL students throughout the day. She worked with several small groups of children to develop their English language proficiency to help them be successful readers.

“It’s like stepping into my future,” Mason says.

Research and community
Sepulveda developed her own CIS major called “Cognition, Problem Solving, and Education.” Her major is centered on this question: How can an understanding of cognition inform curriculum and pedagogy to foster problem solving and critical thinking?

Like Mason, Sepulveda says experiences outside the college classroom have been valuable. In 2014 she participated in an independent research course with St. Olaf Associate Professor of Psychology Shelly Dickinson and another student. They related literature about cognition and learning to the educational practices at Prairie Creek Charter School. They presented the information in a professional development session for teachers and answered questions about specific teaching practices.

From this experience, Sepulveda learned how her research could benefit not just herself, but the broader community.

“I began to see the connection between translating research into practical applications in curriculum development,” she says.

Last spring, Sepulveda merged research and practice by working on a team to develop science labs focused on student-driven inquiry, learning, and discovery. Their designs followed the learning cycle format, which is experience-driven learning. They were able to pilot their science labs in Central High School in St. Paul.

“It was exciting to see the students more enthusiastic about participating in science,” Sepulveda says.

Over the summer, Sepulveda worked on identifying assessment methods for informal science learning environments for the Science Alliance’s after-school programs through St. Olaf’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program. She has built on this research by improving the science curriculum and assessment used by the Science Alliance.

Currently, Sepulveda is also developing a web resource for secondary and higher education teachers that gathers critical thinking activities and assessments and provides links to research on critical thinking.

An enhanced education
Both Mason and Sepulveda have benefited from pursuing a CIS major.

For Mason, her CIS major has allowed her to use an interdisciplinary perspective in her approach to teaching.

“It’s holistic,” she says.

For Sepulveda, her CIS major helped her find opportunities to participate in community projects.

“It really happened primarily through having a CIS major and thinking intentionally about the types of projects that would best synthesize my learning,” she says.