Alumni Spotlight: Cassandra Potier Watkins, From Student to Scientist
What have you learned in the past year? Many families learned a lot about each other as they quarantined together. Some learned how to bake, share videos, and how to use toilet paper sparingly. Kids learned that they can get away with more screen time. Some parents had to relearn how to do new math. No matter what the past year has taught us, there’s still so much opportunity to learn.
The capacity to learn is one thing Laurel Springs alumna, Cassandra Potier Watkins, studies extensively. As a researcher in Cognitive Science, she studies how children learn to read and solve math problems. Here she explains why she went into this course of study and how Laurel Springs helped her along the way.
Studying the Brain
While many of us learned the same basic subjects in school, has anyone ever questioned why? Of course, some teachers and researchers may have broached the subject, but most students go through school learning the same topics in their respective grade levels as many other students before and after them. As a PhD student, Cassandra was one of the researchers struck by this concept:
“[I’m] interested in the interaction between the brain and school education. Have you ever wondered why all around the world we send our children to school to learn pretty much the same subjects (reading, math, history and science)! I have always found it fascinating that [formal] education comprises these topics of knowledge that are internationally valued as central to school learning, and how they in turn impact the way our brains develop”
Ms Potier Watkins specializes in studying formal education, “learning that is effortful, as opposed to picked-up by observation.” Her thesis focused on “the design and field-testing of a tablet application for boosting kindergarten reading and arithmetic ability.” Many families may be familiar with a similar program, especially after the year we’ve had.
Pre-Covid, the tablet was seen as a recreational tool. Sure, kids may have been learning-from-seeing, but “screen-time” was more of a reward. With Covid, suddenly, even young children for the first time received a crash-course in using technology as a resource. It’s a window to the outside world. It’s school, entertainment, and a connection to loved ones over video chat. Maybe this shift in perception of what a tablet is capable of will help promote it from motivator to elevator as it helps kids advance in certain skills.
From Student to Scientist
Now that she’s studying formal education, it’s only fitting to look back at Cassandra’s schooling experiences. Before graduating from LSS in 1996, Cassandra was a bright, busy student. Laurel Springs “taught me to pursue my interests and self-learn.” This learning led to a PhD and high praise from Laurel Springs founder, Marilyn Mosley Gordanier: "I am so proud of her...she is really a stunning human being and accomplished so much."
While Cassandra is now busy marveling at what our brains are able to learn and how formal learning shapes our brains, she’s still interested in keeping up to date on what’s new at Laurel Springs. This is one of the reasons why she’s decided to join Alumni Connect. This private platform is solely for Laurel Springs alum to reconnect, stay connected, stay informed, and network within our global community. As many of us have discovered this past year, keeping that sense of community and global outreach is essential to our wellbeing.
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