Innovations in Education

The occupational therapy (OT) profession is currently experiencing a shortage of academicians and academic leaders. As part of a multifaceted response, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) published The Occupational Therapy Education Research Agenda in 2014. It identifies six major research goals and priorities for OT education: theory building, pedagogy, instructional methods, learner characteristics and competencies, socialization to the profession, and faculty development and resources.

Steve Taff, PhD, OTR/L, FNAP, FAOTA, who serves as the director of the division of professional education in the Program of Occupational Therapy, saw the document as a call to action to occupational therapy (OT) schools and educators.

“Among its many initiatives, the Research Agenda calls on us as a profession to do more scholarship of teaching and learning and educational research. As a Program, we wanted to take it a step further and create a scholarship experience for students interested in a career in academia and in educational research,” Taff explains.

In the fall of 2016, Taff assembled a group of faculty members whose scholarly work focuses on educational excellence to join him in this initiative. Students interested in developing innovations in the science of learning, instructional technology, fieldwork education, professional and educational leadership, and interprofessional education were encouraged to select a primary mentor in the Innovations in Education group for their directed scholarship course sequence. Students also benefit from all mentors in large group activities, which foster collaborative efforts and allow individual students to give and receive feedback from every peer in the cohort.

“Being a new scholarly experience, we didn’t think we would have a lot of interest in our first year, but we did. Currently we have a group of nearly 20 students with projects focusing on student wellness, physical and mental [health], and how stress, sleep, anxiety and depression factor into academic performance. Another group is examining the outcomes between the master’s degree and the doctoral degree programs,” Taff says. “We even have a student studying the development of this scholarly experience as it is happening.”

Arun Selvaratnam, MSOT/S ’18, joined the Innovations in Educations group because he is interested in a career in academia. Selvaratnam has undertaken an ambitious project: a historical systematic mapping review of the influence of epistemology on OT education from 1917 to 2017. He heard Taff describe the project during a lunch seminar and felt it was right up his alley.

“Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Different types of epistemology have different answers to its fundamental questions such as: What is knowledge? How can something be known? What is the extent of what can be known? OT has always been a field that draws from many different disciplines; the founding members of our field came from a wide variety of backgrounds,” Selvaratnam says. “We basically want to locate when, where and how these influences manifested, and represent that in a visual, historical map. OT is only a hundred years old—that's extremely young for a discipline. It has so much room to grow, and I feel I have a legitimate opportunity to affect and contribute to that.”

“A project like this will inform us of trends and patterns over the years and can provide a template for almost any other kind of similar concept,” says Taff, who serves as Selvaratnam’s mentor. “This type of educational research will help inform OT educators about how knowledge has been viewed in professional training, what types of instructional strategies fit the needs in building different sorts of knowledge, and how knowledge can best be assessed.”

New scholarly offerings

This year, the Innovations in Education scholarship group offerings include projects centered on developing educational apps or assessing technology for hybrid learning platforms. Faculty member Ping Lieser, PhD, will be mentoring students interested in leveraging technology in the classroom, with clients and across the profession. Stacy Smallfield, DrOT, OTR/L, BCG, FAOTA, and Lauren Milton, OTD, OTR/L, both have experience using apps with various populations and can provide mentorship to students interested in using technology for client education. Taff will offer new projects under his mentorship, including developing a “teaching commons” faculty learning pilot and a study mapping “ways of knowing” to content in OT curricula.

Also new this year, students can work on projects with the long-term goal of developing a student-run hand and upper extremity clinic. Vicki Kaskutas, OTD, OTR/L, FAOTA, will serve at the mentor for this experience. Since 2015, The Program in Occupational Therapy has successfully operated a similar student-run stroke clinic that provides free services for un- or under- resourced clients to help increase their safety and independence following a stroke.

Leading interprofessional initiatives

The long-range goals of the Innovations in Education group extend beyond just providing scholarly experiences to students. “We want to help lead interprofessional educational initiatives on the WashU campus. We are looking at developing a health-care professions educational research conference and a summer teaching institute in the near future,” Taff says. “With support from the Provost’s ‘Bring Your Own Idea’ program and in partnership with Gina Frey, PhD, executive director of the Teaching Center, we have also started the Cross Campus Education Research Group. It’s a forum for different professions to talk about their research, share new ideas for teaching and discuss common challenges educators face in and out of the classroom. We have representatives not only from the medical school, but also from chemistry, engineering, architecture and social work. It’s interesting to see how all of these professions are approaching educational research. In doing so, we are able to share best practices and collaborate on projects that will benefit the WashU community as a whole.”

In addition to forging these relationships locally, Taff is committed to assisting the profession nationwide accomplish similar goals. In January 2016, he was elected by his peers to serve as the chairperson for AOTA’s Commission on Education (COE). This visionary group develops, implements and evaluates initiatives that enhance and support the learning of future OT professionals.

A career in academia

Taff is motivated to take such an active role in academia because of the career choices he made along the way that lead him to teaching.

“I grew up in and around education; both of my parents were teachers, and I spent a lot of time in schools. After graduating from the Program with my master’s degree, I became a school-based practitioner because that setting felt natural to me. After I earned my PhD in educational psychology, I had two career options: becoming a superintendent for a public school district or entering academia. Academia drew me in because it encompasses all the aspects of education I enjoy—leadership, teaching, innovation and scholarship. It energizes me, and I want to give students interested in education every opportunity to explore what career choices our profession has for them. I want our Program to be known nationally and internationally as ‘the’ place to go to for preparation to become an academician or education researcher.”

The unique mentorship model the Innovations in Education group provides is bringing the Program closer to that goal, one student at a time.

“Great mentorship is the most helpful thing in preparing me for academia. Dr. Taff is constantly giving me advice, ideas, articles, feedback—everything you could ask for and more from a mentor. I can confidently say that his influence is one of the major reasons that I even considered and decided on a career in academia,” Selvaratnam says.

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