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Investing in the Excellence of Optimal Student Learning

Profile of Dr. Melina Uncapher
CEO & Director, Institute for Applied Neuroscience
Assistant Professor of Neurology & Director of Education, Neuroscape Center, UC San Francisco

How does the brain learn in real-world environments — and what are the optimal conditions for successful student learning outcomes? And, how is technology best used in the classroom to increase student learning? These are the questions that led neuroscientist Dr. Melina Uncapher, Assistant Professor of Neurology & Director of Education, Neuroscape Center, UC San Francisco and CEO and Director of the Institute for Applied Neuroscience, to partner with Santa Clara Unified in a cutting-edge research program that examines the core fundamental brain capacities that allow students to achieve in school, with the goal of developing personalized learning plans in math and reading.

“Typically decisions about educational programs and technology are not based on the research on learning, because much of the technology hasn’t been tested to see if it really works,” said Dr. Uncapher. “This inspired the desire to work with educators to develop resources to help make evidence-informed decisions — for what works for students and why,” she continued.

Though the science of learning is a century-old tradition, the science of how people learn is not widely — if at all — covered in teacher preparation programs, according to Dr. Uncapher. Over the past four years, Uncapher has presented her research on the science of learning to the White House during the Obama administration and to educators in workshops across the country.

Executive Function and Student Learning

One of the key aspects of Dr. Uncapher’s research includes the importance of ‘executive function’ — paying attention, tuning out distractions, impulse control, short-term memory, and multitasking — in learning. Higher order executive functions require the simultaneous use of multiple basic executive functions and include planning, reasoning, and problem-solving. Executive functions gradually develop and change across the lifespan of an individual and can be improved over the course of a person’s life. Similarly, these cognitive processes can be adversely affected by a variety of events which can affect an individual. “Understanding executive functioning to know how to help students navigate learning is not taught in teacher education programs. So often teachers have to make an educated guess because the science of learning is not covered in teacher training,” said Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Kathie Kanavel.

So, can executive function be improved? This is the question that Dr. Uncapher and her research team are seeking to answer. “It's been shown by my colleagues, including a co-investigator in this study, Professor Silvia Bunge at the University of California, Berkeley, that school is actually an executive function training that can improve executive function performance as well as change the students' brains,” said Dr. Uncapher.

However, from a student learning standpoint, how executive function impacts and predicts a student’s core capacities to learn and perform in math and reading has been relatively understudied in middle childhood students (aged 7-12). This is what motivated Dr. Uncapher and her colleagues to partner with Santa Clara Unified in the fall of 2016 to use innovative mobile tools (developed at UCSF’s Neuroscape Center) to uncover high-precision executive function snapshots in 1,000 third, fifth and seventh grade students in seven schools, and see how they developed across two academic years.

Prior to commencing the study, Santa Clara Unified teachers and administrators received in-depth training on the evidence-based science of learning. The findings from the study will be turned into a cleverly-named “So What?” Plan, which will be co-created by the researchers and the district. Together, the researchers, teachers, and principals will develop meaningful, evidence-informed programs that best support students in building their executive function to accelerate their learning.

“Educators will gain more of an understanding of how they can support students in building executive functioning if they are challenged in this area,” said Kanavel. “Students have also learned about how their brains work while they are learning. Students have been able to draw their brains, name the parts and learn the functions of each part; older students have been able to dissect brains and learn about them,” she continued.

“This study will allow us to identify core cognitive capacities that may hold children back in school with the goal of developing personalized learning plans to support academic achievement, especially in math and reading,” said Dr. Uncapher.

Another grant from National Institute of Health is allowing the district and Dr. Uncapher to study the impact digital technology and media on students’ brains. “Educators are appropriately concerned about being responsible consumers and users of technology in education,” said Dr. Uncapher. The research program studies how children’s cognition develops over time, and whether that changes with increased media and technology use. For this study, the district’s students and parents are completing technology use questionnaires and Dr. Uncapher and district teachers are studying their cognitive development.

Designing Learning Environments

Since working with Dr. Uncapher, the district has begun considering evidence when designing new classrooms and improving current classrooms. Dr. Uncapher stresses that the field investigating the impact of the built and natural environment on learning is still very early, but shared some promising initial findings. “There is a large study of 21,000 elementary school students showing that students who learned in the sunniest classrooms had larger learning gains in reading and math,” said Dr. Uncapher. “Exposure to natural light can trigger the brain’s hypothalamus, which tells the brain to be more awake and alert,” she continued. The district began increasing natural light in its current classrooms through simple adjustments by advising teachers to open curtains or blinds and by creating classrooms with increased natural light (either through windows or installing short-spectrum lights) in the district’s newly built classrooms and during modernization projects at many schools.

Another example of how the district is incorporating changes to the school and classroom environments is through increasing students’ views’ of the natural environment, known as biophilic design. “Some researchers have proposed that the brain prefers the repeating patterns in nature,” said Dr. Uncapher. “One large study showed that if students have a view of nature from their classrooms, these students have greater learning gains than students without that view, such as an urban view,” she continued. One hypothesis behind why this phenomenon occurs is that by allowing the brain to look at nature allows students to focus more and cache out distractions. The district is already increasing students’ visual exposure to natural environments through incorporating pictures of nature into classrooms and by creating a simulated “tree” out of a large pillar in the library media center on the newly renovated Central Park Elementary campus.

“This is what having a culture of excellence is — we are engaging higher education and the community in helping to educate our students and teachers,” said Kanavel. “Dr. Uncapher’s work with our students gives us the science behind learning challenges that our students may face and helps us to make the best decisions about how to support them to be successful. As partners, we believe researchers and practitioners must be working together in order to see significant gains in student success. That is what our work with Dr. Uncapher is all about.”