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Education students ditch traditional classrooms to work with children in specialty areas

April 16, 2013

Most word association games typically would link “teacher” with “classroom.” But the Educational Studies program at ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College transports students beyond the traditional school setting to work with children and youth, as well as adults, in careers customized to fit their own interests.

Five new areas of emphasis recently announced for fall 2013 include Environmental Education, Physical Activity and Sport Coaching, Learning Outside of School, Early Childhood, and Games and Impact.

"This program prepares our students to become leaders and make a difference for children and youth in communities,” said Martha Cocchiarella, assistant division director and assistant clinical professor. “It is endless the multitude of experiences our students gain through their coursework and service learning experiences. It is a win-win situation for all: children, youth, parents, community leaders and our students." 

The Educational Studies program provides students with a strong general foundation through research and discussion of current issues in education, educational psychology, child development and education best practices. The area of emphasis a student selects is augmented by four semesters of service learning experience. More information is available at

Clinical associate professor Molina Walters, known as “Dr. Mo,” teaches the program’s Environmental Education courses with an enthusiasm that is catching. As she puts it, the great outdoors is her classroom. Surrounded by nature, her students learn about the special relationship humans have with the planet and how to impart that understanding to children and youth – whether teaching them through nonprofit or government organizations, private educational or recreational settings, or as educational entrepreneurs in children and youth-oriented fields.

“It’s hard not to be passionate about it,” she said. “With all of our technology advancements, we see a distancing of children from their roots. There was a time when kids knew the names of local plants, their state flower and state bird. When you don’t have that appreciation, it makes it hard to respect and enjoy life.”

By contrast, the power of learning through video games becomes a tool for making a difference in children’s lives for majors choosing a Games and Impact focus, said Elisabeth Hayes, Delbert & Jewell Lewis Chair in Reading & Literacy and professor in Teachers College and affiliate faculty member in the Department of English.

“Clearly, there’s a huge interest in using game-based learning in non-formal learning environments that don’t have the constraints of a classroom – like in museums, after-school programs, library-based activities and especially adult education,” she noted. “We teach students to start looking at games as a learning system that works well in multiple venues. So equipping Educational Studies majors, who can work in a variety of settings, with an expertise in games, is a natural fit.”

Often students who pursue an Early Childhood curriculum suffered their own childhood “hurts” from an educator and want to make sure that never happens to another child, according to Teachers College associate professor Cory Hansen.

“I’ve been teaching Early Childhood Education for 15 years, and I cannot tell you how often that recurs,” she said. “Our students can tell you the exact words that an early childhood educator said to them and it still hurts. They want to fix it for themselves and for other children.”

Additionally, Hansen said many ASU students who have disabilities themselves want to go into a field where they can work with children with disabilities and be a role model as well as an advocate. An Educational Studies degree offers them that opportunity, she added.

“Sometimes their disabilities will prohibit them from organizing and running a traditional classroom,” Hansen explained. “But they can work with kids in non-school settings, through nonprofits and other organizations, and have a huge impact.”

ASU students interested in leading children and youth to become healthier kids can customize their degree with an emphasis on Physical Activity and Sport Coaching, according to Teachers College professor Hans van der Mars. He said this course series helps majors appreciate the different physical activity needs of children and teens and design activities appropriate for their developmental levels. Students also learn how programs outside of school can promote a healthy habit of daily physical activity.

“Years ago, most physical education degrees included this kind of option, but many of those were eliminated in the 1990s when the emphasis shifted to increasing course requirements in the exercise sciences,” he explained. “This is a revitalization of that option due to a much better understanding that school physical education classes cannot do it alone and that interscholastic sports don’t offer much for youngsters interested in physical activity who are not gifted athletes.”

Teachers College assistant dean and senior lecturer Connie Pangrazi and van der Mars agreed that community recreational sports are making a comeback due to a renewed national focus on physical activity. They said that getting youth, and adults, to become more active is a complex public health problem. The unveiling of the National Physical Activity Plan in 2010 provides one indication that increasing physical activity among the U.S. population requires involvement from multiple sectors of society, including organizations such as parks and recreation agencies, Boys and Girls Clubs, after-school program providers and so on.

Pangrazi said this trend opens the door wide for students graduating with a Physical Activity and Sport Coaching emphasis.

“Lots of students have their own idea of what they want to do,” she said. “There are loads of different opportunities, whether in the corporate world, higher education, churches, even working with children who are home-schooled. Our students can create programs that match their own interests and aspirations.”