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Doctoral candidate adds research skills to filmmaking talents

March 29, 2010

Before he started work on his doctoral degree through ASU’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership (CTEL), Karl Ochsner was making award-winning educational films with his middle school students. Now Ochsner, who previously work in animation and special effects for feature films and television shows including Disney’s Sunday Night at the Movies, is able to analyze and document the impact those films have in his classroom.

Ochsner teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science at Blessed Pope John XXIII Catholic School in Scottsdale. He is one of 14 students set to graduate in May as members of the second cohort of CTEL’s Ed.D. program in leadership and innovation.

Based on ASU’s West campus, the Ed.D. program is designed to help leaders in education, from elementary schools through universities, become more adept at taking innovative actions in their work settings, analyzing the results of those actions and repeating the cycle to bring about positive change at a local level.

“When I entered the program, I immediately knew I wanted to learn more about the integration of curriculum into student-produced movies,” Ochsner said. “My dissertation examines the effects of didactic digital movie making on learning skills and science content in the middle school classroom.”

In his dissertation project, Ochsner had his middle school students create didactic films to teach state science standards about the atom. He measured the project’s effect on how well students learned the science content, as well as their perceptions of how they used the 21st century learning skills of collaboration, communication, problem-solving and critical-thinking during the project.

“Karl now has evidence that the movie-making process helped his students learn,” said Debby Zambo, an assistant professor in CTEL and chairperson of Ochsner’s dissertation committee. “Before joining the Ed.D. program and conducting action research, all Karl had were intuitive ideas about the benefits of movie making for his students.”

Films produced by Ochsner’s students for his dissertation project were entered into the Arizona Student Film Festival and received first and second place awards. The films were screened at the Harkins Valley Art Theatre in Tempe.

Ochsner’s interest in becoming a teacher was sparked during his previous career, when he worked on producing a series of children’s educational videos. When his wife was offered a job in Phoenix and the couple moved to the Valley from Chicago, the lack of local animation studios was the spark that propelled Ochsner into a teaching career. He worked as a substitute teacher and earned his teaching certification and a master’s degree through CTEL on ASU’s West campus.

After several years as a stay-at-home dad, during which he volunteered in his children’s preschool and kindergarten classrooms and started a local chapter of the networking group Dad-to-Dad, Ochsner became a full-time teacher in 2000. He taught third and sixth grades before moving into his current position three years ago.

“Karl is an innovative teacher and an ideal fit for our Ed.D. program,” Zambo said. “He displays leadership skills, is self-directed and is focused on making a difference in Arizona schools.”

Ochsner describes the process of earning his doctoral degree through CTEL as a life-changing experience.

“The professors have been not only teachers but facilitators of learning, giving students the opportunity to use our strengths to teach one another,” he said. 

“My fellow students are an incredible group of people. These men and women not only contributed to my academic experience but have become a group of friends across the Valley that I can call on for their expertise. This benefits us as teachers and administrators, and ultimately it benefits the students we teach.”

Suzanne Painter, director of the Ed.D. program, says the program emphasizes collaborative work among students and professors. Students conduct much of their work in Leader-Scholar Communities, small groups mentored by two professors.

“This structure requires more work from our faculty members than what is required to teach a traditional lecture class,” Painter said. “The success of our program is a direct result of the hard work and dedication of both students and faculty.”

More information about CTEL’s Ed.D. program is available at