Experiential Learning Expert Sharon Derry Joins Faculty

Sharon Derry, an accomplished researcher who studies the application of cognitive science to problems of education, has joined the School of Education as the Thomas James Distinguished Professor in Experiential Learning.

Derry, who came to Carolina from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, joins faculty who are working to establish a program of research and instruction in the learning sciences.

“UNC is a great institution with a long and respected reputation and I knew that becoming a distinguished professor in the School of Education would be a great honor and achievement,” Derry said. “I'm delighted and thrilled that the School picked me.”

Dean Bill McDiarmid described Derry as a national pioneer in learning sciences, citing her leading research in the use of video technology to improve learning in teacher preparation programs and in school classrooms.

“She will be an invaluable asset, not just to the School but also to the University and state as educators make new forays into using digital technology to improve students’ learning,” McDiarmid said.

Derry had taught and conducted research for 20 years at Wisconsin. She also has worked at Florida State University and at Purdue University. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Rollins College, her master’s in secondary education from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and her Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Among the honors she has received, Derry won a Distinguished Achievement Faculty Award in 2011 at the University of Wisconsin. She was named an American Psychological Association Fellow in 2009.

Expanding research, providing leadership in learning sciences

Derry said she was looking forward to expanding her research agenda.

“For many years I have taught most of my undergraduate classes using methods such as problem-based learning,” she said. “I have helped future teachers learn to foster effective inquiry and constructivist learning environments, and I have helped graduate students learn how to design and study them.

“And I've been active in organizations that intertwine love of outdoor activities – biking, paddling and Nordic skiing – with mentoring of learners, outdoor educational programs, and support of learning activity through creative uses of technology,” Derry said. “I believe such learning communities based on interests and passions that are shared both in the natural and technological worlds are important educational forms for our time.

“I felt the position matched these interests very well and would provide a springboard for jumping even deeper into this kind of research and programmatic work in North Carolina.”

She said she intended to synthesize much of her earlier work on innovative learning environments into a book and an accompanying website that will make the findings more widely available to educators and researchers.

Derry will continue to lead a National Science Foundation-funded effort to design an online system to support data sharing and other collaborative work among an international community of educational researchers who conduct design-based research. She also is working to foster stronger collaborations with other Carolina educational units, such as the Morehead Planetarium, and with off-campus groups, such as North Carolina Outward Bound.

Derry said she also plans to continue her research and development work in online learning.

Derry has taken on the role of program coordinator of the new Ph.D. specialization in learning sciences and psychological studies.

“I'm aware that I've entered the School of Education following a lengthy period of organizational reflection and restructuring,” Derry said. “And I'm aware that we face challenges with resources and budgets. But I strongly sense that the School is moving forward in a positive direction with a strong sense of possibility and challenge and creativity in the air.”

Professorship established by philanthropic support

The Thomas James Distinguished Professorship was established to honor former Dean Tom James, who led the School of Education from 2003 to 2007. James now serves as provost and dean of Teacher’s College at Columbia University.

The professorship was established with a donation to the School by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. Additional funding from the state and from the C.D. Spangler Foundation brought the endowment for the professorship to $1 million.