Professor bridges classroom, lab
By Celena E. Kusch
Janice Light's passion for her discipline is clear.
Light studies augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), communication that is facilitated by gestures, sign language, graphic symbols, communication boards and other technologies.
This field, she emphasizes, depends upon collaborative problem-solving. Researchers, therapists, educators, families and people with communication disorders work together every day to overcome barriers to communication through AAC strategies. For Light, the problem-solving approach is as important in the classroom as in the research laboratory.
"Teaching, research and service go hand in hand for me: Education supports the preparation of students to become future practitioners and researchers; research provides the knowledge base for quality education; and, of course, service is always involved when working in this field. The borders between the three are very fluid. I see them as things that very much go together," she said.
Ingrid Blood, associate vice provost, associate dean of undergraduate education and professor of communication disorders, believes that this approach makes Light an excellent teacher.
"One of Janice's strengths is that she truly can integrate her teaching with her research and service when working with AAC," Blood said. "Janice has been able to bring teaching to the forefront in her work while at the same time she is world-renowned for her research. Internationally, she is one of the most recognized experts in her field, and yet if you come to Penn State, you see that she is also one of the most creative, productive and popular teachers. She consistently receives excellent rankings on her student evaluations."
Part of Light's enthusiasm in the classroom certainly stems from the connections Light makes to developing research.
"In the area of AAC," Light explained, "the field is so new that we are developing the research and competencies at the same time. Penn State has one of the top programs in the nation, particularly in the area of children. Our students have the opportunity to see how research serves to develop the knowledge base that we teach and that they will eventually use to provide effective practice in the field. In turn, when we hit barriers in our classes and in practice, we are developing the next research questions to explore."
Linking teaching and research, Light mentors more than two dozen graduate and undergraduate student researchers, most of them supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs or the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Her mentoring has helped several students achieve research grants and awards, and some research projects even started in her classroom.
One of the department's current research projects, for instance, began as a small class project to study graphic symbols for young children who cannot communicate through speech or sign language.
"In the past, we have used graphic symbols developed by adults who do not have disabilities and who are able to read," Light explained. "For example, the symbol for who is traditionally a picture of a face with a question mark instead of features. That makes sense to most adults, but, of course a question mark doesn't mean anything to the children until they are literate, and then we can just use the word, who. My students wanted to learn how to develop symbols that would be more natural to the children."
As part of their class project, the students worked with a small group of 3-year -olds, asking them to draw abstract concepts like "who," "more," "all gone." They found consistency in the way the children conceptualized the ideas and represented them in pictures. The results suggested better ways to represent concepts graphically for small children with disabilities.
Inspired by their success in the class, the students went on to win the University graduate research fair. Their work has since expanded into a study that involves undergraduates, graduate students and a Fulbright scholar.
Like these students, all of Light's classes create their own learning plans and objectives then contract individually for projects they design.
"By doing self-defined projects, the students see that the work is meaningful and that they can contribute to the field," said Light. "My role is to get the students excited and inspired and to see that they have the knowledge and skills to solve these problems."
Light explains that her in-class teaching centers on preparing students to complete projects through critical analysis of the literature and guided practice with real cases.
"The goal is not just knowledge acquisition, but to teach them to use the knowledge in real cases so they have the tools to be lifelong learners," she said.
Light ranks collaborative problem-solving strategies among the most important learning tools. She is part of the Department of Communication Disorders team, under department head Gordon Blood's leadership, working to develop a Web-based instructional module on problem-solving strategies for undergraduate classes. This project is funded by the Teaching and Learning Consortium's (TLC) Provost Program for Departmentwide Initiatives for Improved Learning. Light also serves as a member of the TLC Faculty Leaders Team.
In her own collaborative, problem-based courses, Light pays particular attention to assessing how well students are learning. She stressed that her responses to the projects are in part evaluative, but they also are designed to stimulate learning by posing further questions and helping students develop their ideas and skills. Light relies on class participation and guided practice activities as well as mid-semester course evaluations to see how well the students are learning and where she needs to make adjustments in the course.
According to Light, open-ended mid-semester questions allow the class to identify what is working well and make suggestions to improve. "I view us as a community of learners with shared responsibilities for learning," Light noted. "I always ask what I could do to improve their learning as well as what they can do to improve their learning."
Celena Kusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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