Gretchen Kalonji

University of Washington
2001 DTS Award

Dr. Gretchen Kalonji
Kyocera Chair, Department of Material Science and Engineering
University of Washington

UW-International School Partnership Group

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Gretchen Kalonji.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

I would hope that the visitor would hone in on the atmosphere of mutual respect and genuine affection that characterize most of my interactions with students, and that also characterize the interactions between students themselves. Basically, I love being with them, and our goals are quite similar, so the atmosphere is collegial, with a good deal of humor in evidence. I believe visitors would also note that students are willing and able to take intellectual risks, and to take on a variety of leadership roles.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

I believe that universities are indeed one of the great "democratizing spaces" in our societies, and that they afford us tremendous potential for solving the really, important, big problems facing societies worldwide. Of course we do a lot along those lines already, but our track record could be a helluva a lot stronger if we were more effective in harnessing the energies of our largest and most imaginative talent pool TOWARDS the big research/service tasks. Fortuitously, and probably not coincidentally, the environments that seem to be the most effective in promoting the professional and personal development of our students are ALSO ones that are effective in getting real work done towards addressing complex, interdisciplinary problems. With time, I have become convinced that the three main objectives of creating more effective research communities AND doing a better job helping our students with their intellectual and personal development AND steering our universities towards more effective service to our communities can work hand in hand. the problem is that the curriculum as it currently stands is more than a bit of a ball and chain around the necks of both faculty and students. Most of my work has focussed on shaking loose some curricular space so that the project-based activities which integrate those major objectives mentioned above can be the CENTER of our work, rather than a poor cousin of an add-on.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

The main risk is burn-out. this work, while tremendously rewarding, is very hard, as it represents quite a fundamental re-definition of the work of faculty and students. In my case, this is compounded by the fact that my personal research has tended to be quite abstract, and not the most naturally suited to projects with the character I've described above. So I've had a number of parallel lives going on. I've persevered because I am stubborn, and I basically believe in what I am doing. As for documenting success of educational efforts, I've utilized a variety of methods, including longitudinal tracking of students, focus-groups, portfolios, bringing in external experts to look at the quality of student work. e.g. through presentations, poster sessions. I've had very good collaborations with colleagues in the evaluation and assessment communities and have become convinced that we can learn a great deal from the more anthropological, qualitative methodologies, in addition to some of the quantitative ones. Hiring graduate students in education, who work under the guidance of experienced faculty and spend a lot of time in the labs with students has been one of the most effective things for me.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

I've gained a great deal from a variety of communities, including the educational research community. An example is early work I did in the late 90's with folks at TERC (Technical Education Research Centers) on a project with computer science and electronics education with the African National Congress in their school in Tanzania, the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College. I think it is REALLY important for science and engineering faculty at the university-level to make contacts with the community of people doing innovative work at the K-12 level. I've also found incredibly imaginative allies in two communities which might, superficially, seem diametrically opposed, i.e. the industrial community, and various communities of social activism. the industrial partners are great allies because they work in the nitty-gritty world where real people work (mostly, by necessity, in large interdisciplinary teams) to accomplish real objectives. their communities are ALSO learning communities (of course most engr students cite their coop/internship activities as the most valuable part of their education) and we benefit a great deal from collaboration with them. From the community of social activism, the most powerful lessons I have learned have to do with how to bring complex constituencies together to work towards the solution of complex problems, esp when there are multiple, intertwined agenda. Another set of interactions which have been of tremendous value to me are the international ones. US academics have a great deal to gain by seeing how higher education plays out in different environments around the world. While it is incredible how much we share, the differences are extremely illuminating, and we can really help each other a lot by sharing activities, strategies and experiences.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

This is rough. I don't think I am a very good model in this regard. I think I would just quote Duke Ellington and say "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing!"

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

We need institutions to be willing to take big risks, and support pilot projects which fundamentally challenge what we are doing and how. Clusters of faculty need to be supported over sufficient durations of time so that new models have a chance to prove themselves. So much of the educational innovation that is encouraged is more or less making adjustments on the margins. We also need more focus on supporting groups of faculty rather than individuals.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts?