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New Dean Brings Science and Tech Experience to Lynch School

On top of being a “single dad,” James Slotta has a lot on his plate after moving back to the United States from Toronto. With his two children and his wife, whose profession forces her to travel often—thus giving Slotta the joking title of “single dad”—he not only has to adjust to Newton, but also Boston College, where he has been hired as the newest associate dean for research in the Lynch School of Education.

Slotta started out in the science field as a physics major at the Case Institute of Technology but moved into psychology and robotics before deciding to pursue and complete a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology.

After graduation, Slotta went to Berkeley for his post-doctorate and collaborated with a team that focused on discovering how to bring the internet into science classrooms. This meant developing learning environments for middle and high school science classes where the internet could be used as a real-time resource to help students work together more collaboratively.

“At this time during the mid-’90s the web was just coming up,” Slotta said. “People don’t remember what it was like before the web but I was [in my 20s] without the web. We had email and you could send files but the basic way of living did not involve computers.”

The team wanted to see if the internet could really become a functional thing that allowed for the sharing and collection notes, Slotta said. When the team first began this endeavor, it lacked browser frames and other tools to assist it along the way. But by the time of Slotta’s departure from Berkeley in 2005, Web 2.0, the latest iteration of the internet, had become available.

“Web 2.0 was a turning point,” Slotta said. “2005 brought the age of more social forms of learning like Wikipedia, Flickr, and oth-er recommendation systems, and this was mind-popping. We were beginning to see the internet as more than just a file server and now actually as a social aggregator.”

The culmination of these efforts, Web-based Inquiry Science Environment (WISE), has continued to flourish, and Slotta is cur-rently in the midst of writing new research on it. Slotta’s prior research transferred into his later work on collective inquiry, a method in which the entire classroom sees itself as the learner.

“You are not learning individually or competing with your friends for a better grade, but instead you are sharing resources and building on one another’s ideas,” Slotta said. “I’m leveraging diversity in the classroom and a new breadth of interest and using tech-nology to do that well.”

After 10 years of study at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, where he held the Cana-da Research Chair in Education and Technology, Slotta and his family made the move to Boston. He believes that being at BC is a good fit for him and now splits his time between his own research and his job as the associate dean of research, in which he supports the school and faculty through a broader vision of understanding how the School of Education connects to the rest of the campus.

“My job is to help that work go better and also to build connections and to find new opportunities for faculty,” he said. “One of my personal visions is to help the faculty in the Lynch School become more of a knowledge-sharing community that builds on re-sources and keeps things from being forgotten.”

Slotta believes that the Lynch Schools faculty’s extensive expertise in teaching, learning, assessment, technology, and social justice can be attributed to the campus on a wider basis. He also stressed that the Lynch School should not be insulated from the rest of campus, but  connected, and his own work will continue to fortify these connections. His current pursuit involves how K-12 teaching affects how science is taught at the university level by working with Lynch faculty in the biology and geoscience departments.

Science is not an extraneous interest in Slotta’s life—his wife is an epidemiologist and public health researcher studying HIV in households in East and South Africa. Despite his wife’s frequent travels and Slotta’s new schedule, the family, along with their 6-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, have adjusted to living in Newton.

Before having kids, his hobbies had always revolved around his interest in the outdoors, and he wants to bring that into his chil-dren’s lives as well. Beyond his work in education, Slotta is also interested in sustainability. As we move into the 21st century, he sees the importance of building sustainable lifestyles and learning about conservation—focusing specifically on the awareness of the human footprint on the planet.

“Social media needs to progress beyond circulating stuff in a bubble and instead on organizing a liquid democracy where people [put] their behaviors, practices and money within their social commitments and social lifestyle choices,” Slotta said.

With Slotta at the helm, the Lynch School and BC as a whole are sure to make great strides in achieving a deeper sense of com-munity and collaboration.

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

December 5, 2016